Jailing of Italian Seismologists Raises Questions Over Earthquake Prediction

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Damage caused by the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake -Image credit TheWiz83

The jailing of six Italian scientists and a government official for manslaughter, after they mistakenly reassured residents of the town of L’Aquila that an earthquake was unlikely, has generated a storm of protest among the scientific community and beyond – and also poses the question of just how reasonable it is for the public to expect early and accurate warnings of a major tremor.

The L’Aquila Earthquake of 2009

The continents of Africa and Asia are colliding as the result of continental drift, a process which brings with it complex tectonic and geological settings; the central Mediterranean is subject to both compressional and extensional movement. In Italy, earthquakes, usually shallow and related to extensional processes, are by no means unexpected.

At M6.3 the L’Aquila earthquake of April 2009 is by no means the largest to have struck the country – there were 35 tremors of ≥ M6.7 in the preceding century. Nor is it the most damaging – the loss of over 300 lives, though certainly significant, is small compared to the numbers lost as a result of previous tremors. Yet it is the L’Aquila earthquake which led to the prosecution and jailing of seismologists for multiple manslaughter.

Why Were the Scientists Tried?

As earthquakes are by no means unusual in Italy, there are processes in place to monitor seismic risk and hazard. All seven of the defendants, members of the Serious Risks Committee, were a part of this process: their role was to evaluate the risk of a significant tremor and advise the population accordingly.

Earthquakes are common in central and southern Italy -Image credit USGS

The BBC, reporting at the time of the trial, notes that a week before the earthquake of 6 April, the seven met to discuss the implications of a number of minor tremors and “issued a reassuring statement, while also saying that it was not possible to predict whether a stronger quake would occur.” The meeting is also said to have concluded that “just because a number of small tremors had been observed, it did not mean that a major earthquake was on its way.

In the trial, the prosecution’s case rested on the fact that these ‘false reassurances’ led some people to remain in their homes rather than  evacuate to a place of safety. The defense argued that the accurate prediction of major earthquakes is impossible – a fact which had been noted by the scientists in the minutes of their meeting.

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