Tuesday, February 5, 2013


An Italian court has found six seismologists and an official guilty of manslaughter and sentenced them to six years in prison over the April 2009 magnitude-6.3 earthquake in L'Aquila. The trial lasted 13 months and the verdict was based on how the group assessed and communicated risk before the earthquake of 6 April 2009 that hit L’Aquila, killing 309 people. As well as being sentenced to prison, those indicted are banned from public service for a year and have to pay financial compensation to the families of the victims, averaging €100,000 for each of the 29 victims named in the indictment.

The indictment relates to a meeting held in L’Aquila 31 March 2009, where the seismologists and the official were asked to assess the risk of a major earthquake in the town after the region had experienced a number of earthquakes in the previous months. In the months leading up to the April 2009 L’Aquila earthquake, a resident named Giampaolo Giuliani started making unofficial earthquake predictions based of measurements of radon gas levels. Giuliani believed emissions of radon gas fluctuate significantly in the 24 hours before an earthquake. Their use as a reliable short-term predictor of earthquakes has never been scientifically proven or accepted and Giuliani has never published any peer-reviewed papers on this idea. Giuliani made predictions about seismic activity in interviews with journalists. These predictions began to terrify the local residents and Giuliani claimed on 30 March 2009 that national civil-protection officials had cited him for procurato allarme - instigating public alarm or panic. That very day, L’Aquila was hit by a magnitude 4.1 shock in the afternoon.

Guido Bertolaso, head of Italy's Department of Civil Protection agency, decided to convene a meeting of the risks commission, to give citizens in the Abruzzo region "all the information available to the scientific community about the seismic activity of recent weeks". The meeting occurred on the evening of March 31, 2009, and is now seen by many in L’Aquila as a public relations event designed to discredit various earthquake prediction ideas and reassure the public.

The meeting was very quick, and a press conference followed with the Civil Protection department and local authorities reassuring the public that minor quakes did not mean there was an increased risk of a larger quake. In a TV interview recorded shortly before the meeting, Bernardo De Bernardinis, then vice-president of Italy's Civil Protection department (he is now President of the Institute for Environmental Research and Protection (ISPRA)) said “the scientific community tells me there is no danger because there is an ongoing discharge of energy.” This statement was considered by most seismologists to be scientifically incorrect.

The media then picked up on the story. A journalist asked "so we should have a nice glass of wine," to which De Bernardinis replied "absolutely", and urged locals to have a glass of Montepulciano.

The prosecutor argued that these reassurances were the reason 29 victims chose to stay in L’Aquila in the following days, rather than leaving; they died when their houses collapsed. Those indicted were accused of presenting "incomplete, imprecise, and contradictory information" to a public left unnerved by months of persistent, low-level tremors. The prosecution alleged that the risk assessment led to scientifically inaccurate messages being given to the public, which then contributed to a higher death toll.

Aside from De Bernardinis, the others indicted include: Enzo Boschi, president of the National Institute for Geophysics and Vulcanology (INGV); Giulio Selvaggi, director of the National Earthquake Center; Franco Barberi, a volcanologist at the University of Rome “Roma Tre”; Claudio Eva, a professor of Earth Physics at the University of Genoa; Mauro Dolce, head of the seismic risk office of the Civil Protection; and Gian Michele Calvi, director of the European Centre for Training and Research in Earthquake Engineering.

The lawyers for the defendants used their final arguments to allege that the prosecution had not showed a clear link between what occurred at that meeting and the deaths, as the minutes of the meeting were not made public before the earthquake, and there was no press release. The accusation from the prosecution mostly relied on relatives’ recollections of what decisions the victims’ made at the time of the earthquake. The prosecution had requested a sentence of four years for each defendant, so was surprised by the sentences of six years.

Unsurprisingly, De Bernardinis said that the sentence will probably “affect the way experts assume responsibilities in crisis situations”. Melandri on the other hand was more direct: “in Italy you will now see many more false alarms in such situations, because experts will choose to cry wolf when in doubt. In the end they will become less and less credible.” Vincenzo Vittorini, a representative for the victims’ families said: “we've been saying for three years that seismic risk was underestimated in L'Aquila, and now a court has confirmed we were right. Yet this verdict makes me bitter, because it means that those deaths could be avoided. This verdict must be a departure point to change the way risk prevention is done in Italy, we do not have the same standards found in other countries”.

All the defendants will appeal their sentences, and their sentences will not come into effect until all appeals have been settled. It does seem to be counter-effective to have the scientists banned from public service for a year and put in jail, when the representative for the victims claims this will change the way risk prevention is done in Italy; unless the representative means that this ‘change’ includes having fewer seismologists available to study and advise on risk assessment in Italy. This case is likely to have worldwide consequences for how risk assessment is portrayed.

Though many scientists over the years have researched earthquake processes, the ability to accurately pinpoint the time, location and strength of a future earthquake in the short term remains elusive. Scientists have to present the information they have in such a way that they do not nurture a false sense of security within the public, whilst also not delivering a false alarm which causes unneeded panic. The Italian case highlights the need for effective communication between the science community and the public, while at the same time remembering that it is not scientists that killed the people of L’Aquila; it is the earthquake that caused the deaths.


Image: REUTERS/Chris Helgren

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