L’Aquila Earthquake – shaking the scientific community

The results of the controversial L’Aquila trial are still sending aftershocks through the scientific community. On 22nd October 2012, the seven members of the National […]

The results of the controversial L’Aquila trial are still sending aftershocks through the scientific community. On 22nd October 2012, the seven members of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks were sentenced to six years in prison for manslaughter. The scientists were accused of presenting incomplete, inconsistent information which falsely assured the public and caused the deaths of 30 residents who would not have died in the earthquake otherwise.

The magnitude 6.3 earthquake which occurred on the 6th April, struck the town of L’Aquila in the Abruzzo region and 300 people died due to the collapse of buildings. The town of L’Aquila lies above an active fault plane, in one of Italy’s most seismically active areas and there is a historical record of large earthquakes and fatalities. Some of these larger earthquakes have been preceded by seismic swarms while others haven’t. Also swarms of low magnitude earthquakes have occurred without being followed by major earthquakes.

The region had been struck by a swarm of low magnitude tremors earlier that year which had restarted on the 30th March, and the 31st March meeting was called to review and evaluate the seismic data. The members of the commission were all eminent scientists at the top of their field. During the course of the meeting the seismic data was discussed and it was concluded that recent seismicity neither increased nor decreased the risk of an earthquake and that there was a low probability that a significant earthquake would occur.

So, what went wrong?

Firstly Bernado De Bernardinis, the deputy head of the Italian Civil Protection Department, had reassured the public in a media interview by saying that scientists had informed him that the tremors were nothing to worry about and that the public should relax by ‘pouring a good glass of wine’. This seems to have been the take home message that the public took, even though it was released before the Commission meeting and wasn’t scientifically supported.

Another problem was that a technician, called Gioacchino Guiliani, from the National Institute of Nuclear Physics near L’Aquila, had predicted an earthquake using information from radon gas measurements around 100km south of L’Aquila on the 29th of March. No such earthquake happened, however this prediction triggered anxiety among the public and  caused undue alarm so the residents of the Abruzzo region were already tense and confused, which is no doubt why they were so reassured by the words of De Bernardinis.

The Commission meeting was called in order for the public to be informed and it has been suggested that the meeting was called as a publicity stunt rather than a genuine scientific meeting and one of the attendants appeared surprised by the narrow scope of the meeting, as he was expecting a more in depth discussion about the seismicity.

The picture that is being built up here is one where a range of information came from sources with varying credibility and correctness, which led the people of L’Aquila to blame the scientists for what was interpreted as their advice. However, should the scientists be held responsible for the deaths of the public? While no false evidence was provided by the scientific experts in this case, and the discussion in the meeting came to the conclusion that the seismic swarms neither increased nor decreased the likelihood of an earthquake happening, this was not effectively communicated to the public.

Irrespective of whether the scientists should be held responsible, they are not the only contingent who bear any degree of responsibility. It is also the role of government officials to ensure that the public receive adequate and correct information, as well as there being sufficient damage limitation for when an earthquake occurs, especially in a region of high risk.

The people who have lost family members in this tragedy claim that they are not seeking revenge, that this investigation was to identify and seek to correct mistakes made, however, was it necessary for seven men to be sentenced to go to jail over this? It is completely reasonable for an inquiry to be made, but instead of pinning the blame, it may be more beneficial to work on a strategy plan to set in place procedures for the assessment of risks and communication to the public of the risks so that further incidents like this can be avoided.

A major concern is how deeply scientists will now want to get involved in assessing the risks and likelihood of an earthquake occurring in a specific region. Scientists have the concern that if they predict that something will happen and it doesn’t, they lose some credibility with the public (as for the case of Giuliani) or if they predict something will not happen and it does, there is the fear of jail. Scientists have always been careful in not over-interpreting data, especially when the data is associated with high uncertainties and potentially disastrous consequences however due to these worries they may become reluctant to officially release any information to the public which may be even more damaging.

As a scientist in the 21st Century, with the amount of information available to all on the internet, it is of the highest importance that you are able to communicate your work well. This involves knowing your audience, and pitching the right amount of information at the right level and you should be able to communicate your work accurately to a wide range of people.

Natural Hazards such as earthquakes and volcanoes are unfortunately unpredictable systems and are extensively studied in order to try and improve our knowledge. There is no ‘one size fits all’ model even within a certain region on Earth for volcanic eruptions or earthquakes. One of the issues with earthquakes or volcanic hazards, is that the outcomes which may occur in these unpredictable systems are not only associated with magnitude of risk, but also a probability of the risk occurring. What a probability means is a difficult concept to understand, however if it were better explained or presented then the public would be more equipped to make their own decisions concerning evacuation of their houses.

Fortunately the scientists are able to appeal against this sentence, although it is doubtful that they can or will want to return to their normal lives. This trial and outcome has however raised important issues which need to be considered with regards to communication, and hopefully scientists will not be too reluctant to offer future advice to the public regarding earthquakes and volcanic hazards.

About Helen Ashcroft

Helen is studying for her DPhil in Earth Sciences.