When a 6.3 earthquake hit the Italian town of L’Aquila in Italy, it was all over in just 28 seconds. But when 300 residents lost their lives, fingers were pointed at geologists who failed to predict that the earthquake was even coming.
When the six geologists left the courthouse, having been cleared of manslaughter charges, their joy was short-lived. When they were met by an angry mob shouting “for shame” at them, they knew it would be something that would follow them for life.
L’Aquila is an Italian city situated in Southern Italy and is the capital of the Abruzzo region as well as the Province of L’Aquila. The city contains roughly 73,000 residents and is laid out within medieval walls in the valley of the Aterno river. Characterized by a maze of narrow streets lined with Baroque and Renaissance buildings, the city is a hot spot for tourists who visit there on a regular basis.
The most recent and infamous L’Aquila earthquake occurred in the region of Abruzzo during the early hours of the morning on April 6, 2009. With its epicenter near to L’Aquila, it was the city that suffered the most damage in the quake. More than 30 foreshocks and aftershocks were felt in the region. Tragically, as well as sustaining substantial structure damage, 308 people were killed, making this earthquake the deadliest one to hit Italy in 30 years.
Soon after the debris was cleared and the mourning period ended, seven members of the Italian National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks were accused of giving “inexact, incomplete and contradictory” information about the quake. Having downplayed the quake, six scientists and one ex-government official were in court on manslaughter charges for downplaying the quake just six days before it hit.
Initially, the scientists were convicted of manslaughter for failing to predict the quake that ravaged the city. Following an appeal, however, that decision was overturned, and the convictions reversed. Scientists around the world stood in horror as they watched the initial 13-month trial which convicted the accused. Many of them, as well as other people, felt that it was unfair to hold the geologists accountable for not predicting the quake.
Scientists involved in predicting earthquakes have their work cut out for them and often find themselves in a lose-lose situation. Following this trial, many people wondered whether it was even possible for scientists to work accurately with the government to predict such an event. But the whole saga has left scientists not wanting to get involved in predicting such events due to the fallout these people suffered in Italy.
Göran Ekström, an earthquake seismologist at Columbia University, told reporters according to a report in The Verge, “This verdict seemed to indicate that scientists could be punished for information that they had gathered and their interpretations,” he said. “There is no doubt that this has had a very negative effect on the willingness of scientists to communicate their insights into natural phenomena to the press and politicians.”
Serious Risks Commission
Due to some predictions, a special committee was set up to ascertain the risks of a forthcoming earthquake in the region. Some low-magnitude tremors, called “seismic swarms,” were felt ahead of the earthquake and one local amateur earthquake buff called Giampaolo Giuliani even predicted it. On March 31, a committee convened to discuss the potential risks. At the time, a member of that committee spoke out.
Enzo Boschi, a member of the Italian Serious Risks Commission, said during the meeting: “A large earthquake along the lines of the 1703 event is improbable in the short term,” adding, “But the possibility cannot definitively be excluded.” After that meeting, the government held a press conference where they told Italians that a major earthquake was not on the cards for L’Aquila. How wrong they were …
Following the earthquake, Italian citizens were both devastated and outraged. Many felt a conspiracy between the Italian government and the scientists was afoot. They believed that the scientists were too preoccupied with calming the local population that engaging in meaningful discussion about the tremors that everyone had felt. As tensions rose, scientists from across the globe wrote letters to the Italian president in support of the special committee members. However, following the trial, the seven scientists were sentenced to six years behind bars.
The prosecution’s case at the time was built on the fact that the scientists told residents to stay inside their homes and not to venture outside in the event of a quake. However, being the medieval town that L’Aquila is, the old buildings and structures there were bound to collapse during a serious quake, as they did. The judge in the case blamed the scientists for their “superficial risk assessment,” which contributed to the high death toll.
However, as Ekström pointed out when the conviction was overturned: “The original conviction clearly represented a misunderstanding of what scientists can and cannot do in terms of saying anything about when earthquakes will occur,” he said. But not only were the scientist blamed for negligence, but they were also banned from public service and ordered to pay financial compensation to the city of L’Aquila as well as to families of the victims.
The convicted scientists were understandably shocked by the $10.2 million they were initially ordered to pay to the victims. But one of the seven who spoke out about the issue, a man called Mr. De Bernardinis, said following the verdict: “I believe myself to be innocent before God and men. … but, if I am judged by all stages of the judicial process to be guilty, I will accept my responsibility.”
According to Alan Leshner, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, who penned a letter to the Italian President: “There is no accepted scientific method for earthquake prediction that can be used reliably to warn citizens of an impending disaster.” He added that: “To expect more of science at this time is unreasonable.”
Dangers of Conviction
Leshner also had some words of warning for the Italian President, speaking about the potential future dangers of a conviction. “We worry that subjecting scientists to criminal charges for adhering to accepted scientific practices may have a chilling effect on researchers, thereby… discouraging them from participating in matters of great public importance,” he wrote.
One of the accused men, Enzo Boschi, even warned his fellow scientists to stay well away from risk assessment inquiries altogether, and for good reason. “When people, when journalists, asked my opinion about things, I used to tell them, but no more,” he told the publication Nature. “Scientists have to shut up.” But other top scientists also chimed in on the matter.
Yet another top scientist, Aubreya Adams, a seismologist at Washington University in St. Louis, said: “To arrest and convict scientists because they cannot forecast earthquakes and to blame them for the earthquakes happening sets a pretty dangerous precedent. … and [it] might discourage people from actually trying to address that problem in the future.”
Giulio Selvaggi, one of the accused and the former director of the National Earthquake Center in Rome, also spoke out at the appeal hearing. “The only useful thing that can protect us from earthquakes is the seismic hazard map of a country,” he said. “We showed a map where L’Aquila is purple, which means the highest hazard. That is what I said on March 31, 2009, and I would say the same thing today.”
Despite having their convictions overturned during the appeal process, Selvaggi also explained that the pain would never go away and that there was nothing to celebrate here. “There is nothing to celebrate,” he said, “The pain of the people of L’Aquila remains.” But the issue has made scientists across the world scared when it comes to earthquake prediction and that in turn could lead to more disasters in the future.
Ian Main, a seismologist at The University of Edinburgh, explained further: “There are no winners in a such a tragic case.” But Main feels that scientists have a duty of care to work in the field of earthquake predictions, saying that, “for scientists working in this challenging, complex, and uncertain field, the success of the appeal means we can continue to give expert advice without fear of prosecution.”
The fallout from the L’Aquila earthquake will likely be felt for years to come, and that includes the uncertainty among scientists who will think twice before predicting earthquakes of the future. They fear that they could also get convicted for an extreme act of mother nature for which they have no real control over. As Ekström concluded: “I think the verdicts have introduced a level of uncertainty regarding what scientists can and cannot say that I think will take some time to resolve.”