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Earthquake scientists convicted in Italy

October 25, 2012

Seven Italian seismologists and government officials have been convicted in Italy this week. They were found guilty of manslaughter relating to the 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila. The court seemed to consider that they gave falsely reassuring following a series of foreshocks hit the town in the months before the M6.3 earthquake that killed more than 300 people.

I am no lawyer and do not profess to understand the Italian legal system. However, I do know about earthquakes and design structures to resist their effects. I simply do not understand how a reassuring statement could be “false”. To be false suggests that it was known to be incorrect. That requires knowing that an earthquake should have been predicted. Earthquakes are impossible to predict, therefore, the statement could not be false.

Simple logic? Apparently not for the Italian court.

So how are earthquakes predicted? They are not basically. Seismologists study previous earthquakes, often going back 10,000s years, and use various means to determine where active faults in the earth are. In relatively low seismic areas (where earthquakes are expected to be less than about M7.5) a more general basis is used to determine earthquake risk. These two methods are used to build up the earthquake risk for an area. It is all very statistical and often too complicated for general media to cover. The sentence “there is a 1% probability of a M7.5 earthquake occurring in the next 100 years which would result in a peak ground acceleration of 0.5g” is not the catchiest of headlines.

That is not a prediction. It is a determination of risk. All earthquake design is based on this.

The only people who make predictions of earthquakes are quacks. They have all been disproven. Whether it is the moon or the clouds, or the tingle in your spine, or the barking of your dog – they are not earthquake predictions.

So what did the members of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks do wrong? They issued simply reassuring messages to the community that they did not expect a major earthquake in the near future. Perhaps they should have said  “the recent minor earthquakes are not known to increase the seismic hazard”. This would be more correct, but would not have allayed the concerns of the public.

Reassuring the community and trying to keep them at home is an important aspect of the management in disasters. Panic can be far more dangerous than the natural hazard. There are many examples, but I recall the Ibrox disaster where a stampede killed more than 50 at a football game. My colleague is an a volunteer for Urban Search and Rescue. Recently, he said to me that the most difficult decision is to tell people to leave their home. You have to be sure that there is an imminent danger. Otherwise, people are more distressed through dislocation.

I find it bizarre that this is considered a crime in Italy, let alone a serious crime. This is the country of the mafia, dodgy politicians and notorious corruption. A country that is struggling with its economy in the heart of the European financial crises. How many more series crimes are committed every day in Italy? How many in any country every day?

The fall-out from this could be severe for Italy. The individuals involved will be devastated. Their careers in ruins, although I expect they would easily find work overseas in earthquake risk management. The impact will be felt far more widely. The immediate consequences are already being seen, the head of the disaster body has quit in protest. The whole disaster management community in Italy will be shocked and disgruntled. A generation of future scientists will look elsewhere. The whole scientific and engineering community in Italy will be wondering who is next.

The unfortunate deaths in L’Aquila were certainly not the fault of these scientists. Italy is an old country with many old buildings. They are known to be vulnerable to earthquakes if they have not been strengthened. Italy has earthquakes. An M6 earthquake is not particularly powerful. There will be more soon in Italy, some will be stronger. It is likely that there will more sad stories.

Prosecuting scientists will do nothing to change that.

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From → An Engineer

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