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Conviction of quake scientists stuns scientific community

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The Seismic Hazard Map of Italy showing the probability of seismic activity for different places in Italy. L'Aquila is in the central region of the country. (Image: U.S. Geological Survey)

The convictions by an Italian judge of four scientists, two engineers and a government official for manslaughter in the deaths resulting from the L'Aquila earthquake in 2009, which killed over 300 people, have stunned the scientific community. The seven experts were part of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks that was held in L'Aquila six days before the magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck.

The experts weren't convicted for not correctly predicting the large quake, but for downplaying the risks of a large quake due to the smaller swarm quakes that were occurring at the time. The prosecution's position was that due to "incomplete, imprecise and contradictory\ statements about the risk of a major earthquake, residents of L'Aquila remained inside their homes instead of going outside when the earthquake struck, which led to greater loss of life.

AAAS member Enzo Boschi, a geophysicist at the University of Bologna and at the time of the earthquake president of Italy's National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology is one of the seven, all of whom were sentenced to prison for six years—two years longer than the prosecution requested. Because no prison time is served until at least one appeal is concluded, the experts remain free.

The fallout has begun, with several members of the Italian government disaster assessment body resigning their positions because of the convictions.

AAASMC asked AAAS Fellow Mark Zoback, professor of geophysics at Stanford University, about the verdict and its impact on the scientific community.

AAASMC: Do you think this verdict will chill the efforts of scientists around the world in trying to predict and mitigate risk in the future, or do you think this verdict is an aberration?
Mark Zoback, Professor of Geophysics at Stanford University:
This is a very sobering event, and I think everyone who deals with the public in the context of natural hazards and the risks to the public will look at this event and worry deeply about what they can and should be saying. Most of us are trying to provide accurate information to the public and to characterize the risk in the context of scientific information to the best of our ability. Assuming that's what our Italian colleagues were doing, that we've seen this punishment meted out for them trying to deal honestly with the situation is extraordinarily worrisome.

AAASMC: It appears the conviction wasn't for failure to predict a large quake, but for downplaying the risk of a major earthquake after a swarm of smaller quakes. Can you discuss the significance of a swarm to the occurrence of a large earthquake?
Zoback:
 Swarms are a sequence of many relatively small- to moderate-sized earthquakes without there being a large event. It's common for them to occur without a larger event. I'm assuming the opinions among the individuals involved were that this was a swarm like many other swarms that characterize the region. Most of those swarms were not associated with a larger event.

AAASMC: In 2010, there was an article in The Guardian about Italian scientist Giampaolo Giuliani who said he predicted the large quake a few days before by reading higher levels of radon gas emissions. Is there any scientific merit to such a claim?
Zoback:
It has been claimed that measuring radon gas could be useful in predicting earthquakes; however, all of the serious scientific investigations that have looked at this claim have failed to show any reason for promise or merit in this hypothesis. It has occurred, but where reputable scientists have looked at these kinds of claims, they have not been borne out. It is not surprising that a group of scientists were not endorsing this kind of prediction. It's really an unfortunate coincidence that this occurrence was in fact associated with a big earthquake and many people were killed.

AAASMC: What's the buzz in the scientific community as a result of this case? Is there any talk of being more cautious with predictions and risk mitigation in the future?
Zoback:
I think what's probably going to happen is that there will be panel discussions and public forums among scientists on this topic. A lot of emails have been flying around. It's too soon for any kind of organized thinking and response, but I think that will be forthcoming. Many people are potentially affected by this. How we communicate the possibility of a low probability but high impact event is a very difficult topic to discuss in a concise way, in a way that the public can understand it.

AAASMC: Do you think this opens the door for scientific liability in predicting other natural disasters such as hurricanes or tsunamis, for example?
Zoback:
I think it opens a very dangerous door. It looks as if it's not so much about prediction of events, but prediction of potential consequences of events. We don't know if we'll ever be able to predict earthquakes, but we do have responsibility for accurately communicating earthquake risk to the public. In this case in hindsight, it is clear that the earthquake occurred and the risk had not been accurately communicated. That was done by a group of individuals who were trying to act responsibly, but in this case they happened to be wrong. If that's the standard to which scientists are held, if you can't act responsibly, and sadly, sometimes be wrong, how can anyone ever express a scientific opinion? This affects severe weather prediction, flooding, landslides, drought; various natural hazards exist, and these are complex systems. We rely on our scientific knowledge and best judgment, and occasionally, we will be wrong. But being wrong is not a criminal offense when we are using our best scientific judgment and trying to serve the public as best we can.

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Representative Image Caption
The Seismic Hazard Map of Italy showing the probability of seismic activity for different places in Italy. L'Aquila is in the central region of the country. (Image: U.S. Geological Survey)
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