Seismology in the dock
Astonishing news from Italy, where six geoscientists and a former public official have been jailed for six years on a charge of manslaughter for failing to predict the deadly L'Aquila earthquake, or rather for being too reassuring beforehand about the risks after tremors in the area.
The convicted seven were all part of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks, and are accused of having provided "inaccurate, incomplete and contradictory" information ahead of April 2009 earthquake, which devastated the Appenine town and killed 309 people.
It's not possible to predict earthquakes with certainty; by definition the whole business is about weighing risk and uncertainty. These seismologists were doing their best to communicate an inherently uncertain situation to the public, and by all accounts their advice was just what most professionals would have given.
For a detailed account of efforts to understand how the quake happened in its immediate aftermath, check out the article Richard Philips of the University of Leeds wrote for Planet Earth a couple of years ago. Richard explains that the location of the quake was neither obvious nor easily predictable:
"Few scientists were surprised by such an event in this region, but some were puzzled by the location of the ground rupture. None of the obvious bedrock scarps appeared to have been affected and much attention was placed on scouring local faults for the signature of a fresh earthquake rupture. With the help of satellite remote sensing provided by the University of Oxford and the Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia, attention returned to a fault near the village of Paganica, east of L'Aquila.
Initially, surface evidence of the earthquake was limited to ground cracks, sometimes just a few millimetres wide that snaked through the village and across fields. Following more detailed investigation, geologists discovered ground ruptures displaying up to 15cm of vertical movement. Despite the lack of dramatic surface rupture, this fault was responsible for the devastation in surrounding towns, of which L'Aquila and the village of Onna fared the worst. "
It's possible the seven will be freed on appeal. For the time being, though, this episode means the rest of the Italian geoscience community will almost certainly be a lot cagier about sharing their expertise with the public in future. If making predictions that turn out to be wrong will land you in jail, the result won't be better predictions; it'll be no predictions at all on any subjects that aren't completely certain. It's only a matter of time before there are more quakes in the area; in the effort to protect its people, few things could be less helpful.
Posted on 23 October 2012
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