Earthquakes: The Verdict

On Oct. 22nd, 2012, an Italian court convicted six scientists and a government official of manslaughter, for failing to give adequate warning of the deadly earthquake which occurred in L’Aquila, in 2009. Each defendant received a sentence of six years, in jail.
The group of seven – all members of an official body called the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks – were found guilty of negligence and malpractice in their evaluation of the danger of an earthquake, and their duty to keep the city informed of the risks.
The Case HistoryAt 3:32 in the morning of 6 April 2009, the Abruzzo region of central Italy was rocked by a magnitude M 6.3 earthquake.
In the city of L’Aquila and its surrounding area, some sixty thousand buildings – including many homes – collapsed or were seriously damaged, resulting in 308 deaths and 67,500 people left homeless.
The earthquake – along with around 250 aftershocks – caused an estimated 10 billion euros of damage within 48 hours.
An Unanticipated WarningHard on the news of the earthquake came the announcement that a Giampaolo Giuliani had predicted this earthquake, had tried to warn the public, but had been muzzled by the Italian government.
Closer examination reveals a more subtle tale.
Giampaolo Giuliani is a laboratory technician at the Laboratori Nazionali del Gran Sasso. As a hobby he has for some years been monitoring radon (a short-lived radioactive gas that has been implicated as an earthquake precursor), using instruments he designed and built himself.
Prior to the L’Aqulia earthquake he was unknown to the scientific community, and had not published any kind of scientific work.
Giuliani’s rise to fame may be dated to when he was interviewed on March 24, 2009, by an Italian-language blog, Donne Democratiche, about a swarm of low-level earthquakes in the Abruzzo region that had started the previous December. He reportedly said that this swarm was normal, and would diminish by the end of March. On March 30 L’Aquila was struck by a magnitude 4.0 trembler, the largest to date.
One source says that on the 27th, Giuliani warned the mayor of L’Aquila there could be an earthquake within 24 hours.
There was – but none larger than about M 2.3.
Another WarningOn March 29, Giuliani made a second prediction.
The details are hazy, but apparently he telephoned the mayor of the town of Sulmona, about 55 kilometers southeast of L’Aquila, to expect a “damaging” – or even “catastrophic” – earthquake within 6 to 24 hours.
This led to the dispatch of loudspeaker vans warning the inhabitants of Sulmona (not L’Aquila) to evacuate – with subsequent panic.
No earthquake followed, and Giuliani was cited for procurato allarme (inciting public alarm). An injunction was put on him, preventing Giuliani from making public predictions.
After the L’Aquila event, Giuliani claimed that he had found alarming rises in radon levels just hours before.
Although he reportedly claimed to have “phoned urgent warnings to relatives, friends and colleagues” on the evening before the earthquake hit, the International Commission on Earthquake Forecasting for Civil Protection, after interviewing Giuliani, found that there had been no valid prediction of the mainshock before its occurrence.
What About The Scientists?
The case focused in particular on a series of low-level tremors which hit the region in the months preceding the earthquake – and which prosecutors said should have warned experts not to underestimate the risk of a major shock (Some of which were – arguably – predicted by Giuliani).
Speaking on the case, Dr David Rothery, senior lecturer in Earth Sciences, Open University, said:
‘The best estimate at the time was that the low level seismicity was not likely to herald a bigger quake, but there are no certainties in this game.’
He went on to add:
‘I hope they will appeal. Earthquakes are inherently unpredictable.’
In fact, the scientists are unlikely to be sent to jail pending a probable appeal trial.
But The Can Of Worms…
Has been opened.
Science is now in the dock.
The successful prosecution of this case opens the way for legal actions centered on inaccurate predictions of other natural disasters, such as hurricanes, landslides, and major tidal events.
Not surprisingly, there are ripples being felt throughout the scientific community, as well.
Prof Malcolm Sperrin, director of Medical Physics, Royal Berkshire Hospital, Reading, said:
‘Assuming that negligence and malpractice are not factors here then the prosecution, and now sentences, of the Italian seismologists comes as a considerable surprise.’
‘It is never the case that predictions are completely without uncertainty and any scientist will make this clear as well as an estimation of how accurate such predictions are.’
‘If the scientific community is to be penalized for making predictions that turn out to be incorrect, or for not accurately predicting an event that subsequently occurs, then scientific endeavor will be restricted to certainties only, and the benefits that are associated with findings from medicine to physics will be stalled.’
‘It is worth pointing out that many of the valuable contributions made by scientists such as penicillin, radiobiology etc have stemmed from the enquiring mind rather than absolute certainty of success.’
‘Earthquakes are inherently unpredictable.’
ARE they, though?

Well, that’s what we’ll be looking at, next time.

Till then.