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L’Aquila charges leave earthquake scientists on shaky ground

You’ll know by now that six scientists and a government official have been found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to six years in prison for how they assessed and communicated risk prior to the L’Aquila…

The public should be made aware of all possible scenarios within an earthquake sequence. Ettore Ferrari/EPA

You’ll know by now that six scientists and a government official have been found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to six years in prison for how they assessed and communicated risk prior to the L’Aquila earthquake that killed 309 people in 2009.

So what can we, in earthquake science, take from these convictions? If we choose to educate the public during an earthquake sequence – as I did ahead of last year’s Christchurch earthquake – how responsible are we for any apparent surprises that eventuate?

Do scientists have a right to be wrong? Does state-of-the-art science really enable us to speak confidentially about “low-probability” events? And is there a way to better communicate risk to the general public?

The Italian verdict was not due to the scientists' failure to “predict” the earthquake, which most scientists generally agree is not possible with our current knowledge of precursory phenomena (such as foreshocks, radon gas release, and other seismic activity).

Rather, the prosecutor reasoned that “inadequate” risk assessment and scientifically incorrect messages were given in public statements prior to the earthquake.

Seven members of a body called the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks, were accused of negligence and malpractice in evaluating the danger and keeping the central city informed of the risks. Claudio Lattanzio/EPA

After months of small (magnitude 3.5 to 4.1) earthquakes leading up to the L’Aquila earthquake, one of the individual’s indicted, Bernardo De Bernardinis, stated: “the scientific community tells me there is no danger because there is an ongoing discharge of energy …”. The inferencence was that these small earthquakes were reducing the possibility of a major quake.

Certainly a statement from one member of the group at the time of the L'Aquila quake – Enzo Boschi, then-president of Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV) in Rome – was both well-balanced and informative:

It is unlikely that an earthquake like the one in 1703 [a devastating earthquake that previously hit L’Aquila] could occur in the short-term, but the possibility cannot be totally excluded.

Probabilities

Many seismologists consider that an increase in the frequency of small- to medium-sized earthquakes increases the chances of a large earthquake based on long-established fundamental relationships in seismology.

But this effect is relatively small in terms of an absolute probability and does not improve earthquake prediction.

In the past 60 years in Italy, only six of 26 major earthquakes have been preceded by foreshocks and many earthquake swarms have occurred without subsequent large earthquakes.

Italian scientists concluded that a medium-sized shock in a swarm forecasts a major event within several days only about 2% of the time.

If they had issued a specific warning that a major earthquake was coming in L’Aquila prior to the event, they would have had a 98% chance of being wrong.

The L’Aquila earthquake occurred on a previously identified and well-monitored fault zone in an area of elevated historical seismicity that was recognised as one of Italy’s most seismically dangerous regions.

From that perspective, the L’Aquila earthquake was no surprise, and the possibility of an earthquake of its magnitude occurring in this region following months of seismicity should not have been publicly dismissed.

A clear lesson here is that the general public should be made aware of all possible scenarios within an earthquake sequence, regardless of how small the absolute probability of certain scenarios may seem.

The prison sentence for the Italian scientists will seem overly harsh to most of us, given the highly stressful and complex scientific, societal, emotional, and political environment that develops during an earthquake sequence.

Silvio Berlusconi and Barack Obama in the earthquake-damaged town of Onna, near L'Aquila, in 2009. Maurizio Brambatti/EPA

One wonders whether appropriate building codes were applied and enforced, and whether these scientists would have been off-the-hook if buildings had coped better with the seismic shaking of L’Aquila’s quake.

It takes a ton of courage for scientists to speak openly about low-probability scenarios, particularly if these comments are used to accuse scientists of scaremongering, and/or have detrimental impacts on earthquake recovery, such as decreasing investor and re-insurer confidence during the rebuild phase and increasing stress levels of local residents.

Canterbury

Once the sorrow of last February’s Christchurch earthquake subsided to a level where I could refocus, I conducted several media interviews and public talks.

Scientists throughout New Zealand made the public aware after the September 2010 Darfield earthquake in Canterbury, New Zealand that a magnitude 6 aftershock was possible.

The public was also aware potential scenarios could include a shallow earthquake in the region east of the Greendale Fault and that aftershocks beneath Banks Peninsula suggested elevated crustal stresses in that area were being partially accommodated by slip on northeast-oriented faults.

In an article written for the New Zealand Herald on September 8 2010, I stated that:

My optimistic guess is that we are unlikely to get an aftershock as big as a Mw 6 based on aftershock data from what I felt were similar earthquake sequences in Haiti and Mexico […] [but] we could get a bigger one months from now.

In retrospect I would have liked to have the former statement back, but in truth this was an example of locally based optimism at a time of heightened public anxiety. I do feel scientists have a right to voice well-grounded hypotheses, just as they have a “right-to-be-wrong”, provided the justification for said hypotheses and the range of possibilities are publicly presented.

The collapse of the CTV building following the Christchurch earthquake on February 22, 2011 killed 115 people. EPA

The last decade has thrown up many seismic surprises, not least the magnitude 9.0 Tohoku earthquake in Japan that was preceded by a magnitude 7.2 foreshock, affirming that we still have much to learn about earthquake behaviour on our planet.

Having been through a catastrophic earthquake sequence beneath one of its major population centres, the New Zealand earthquake science community is better placed than before to answer the needs of the public.

Data sharing with the general public as quickly as possible via all media avenues is being increasingly recognised as an obligatory responsibility by many practising scientists, but significant barriers to this process remain.

Science does not move at the pace of the media, and science that requires substantial peer review may be less interesting to the broader public by the time it has undergone a lengthy review process.

In order to make money from expensive journal subscriptions, many publishers do not allow the authors of scientific articles to disseminate their original work publicly.

In my view, this is inappropriate in a post-disaster environment, where the affected public deserve the right to freely scrutinise the raw data that has so often been obtained with public funding.

Improvements

Improvements can be made in the way we communicate earthquake science. Published, publicly available statements of “absolute probabilities” such as “there is a 9% chance of a magnitude 6 to 6.4 earthquake occurring in the Canterbury aftershock region in the next 12 months” should be contextualised against the “probability increase relative to pre-mainshock probabilities”.

This could be done with statements such as: “this probability is 100-times greater than the annual probability of a magnitude 6 to 6.4 earthquake occurring in this region prior to the Darfield earthquake”.

In this way, we might communicate that, while the absolute chance of a major earthquake is low, it is relatively high compared to the way it was before.

Better integration of fault geometries (or maps) and stress modelling will allow earthquake forecast models to be improved. Better understanding of the way seismic energy is soaked up on its way through the crust will provide important information to building codes and assessment of potential damage in future earthquakes.

When forces as great and unpredictable as earthquakes are involved there is no way – at present – to give all the answers ahead of time. But continuing enhancements to the way data is collected, analysed and delivered to the public will make things better.

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11 Comments sorted by

  1. Robin Bell

    Research Academic Public Health, at University of Newcastle

    Excellent article Mark. Balanced and accurate. The 6 year sentence for manslaughter does sound excessive, but it is the laws of Italy that are being applied.
    I'd add that notifying the public of low probability events becomes increasingly important when the risk of harm from such an event is greater; i.e. low probability events in low density population areas with modern building codes may warrant different warnings compared to the same event risks in high density areas with aged or heritage buildings more likely to collapse at low stress levels.
    Those who suggest scientists should not be held accountable for their professional acts in circumstances where the safety of individuals or the public is at risk, are suggesting scientists be treated as a special class of people, exempt from criminal and common law. Lack of accountability increases the likelihood of aberrent professional behaviour.

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  2. Anneliese Ford

    Senior Consultant

    Thank you for your thoughtful article, Mark. I also appreciate Robin's perspective. However I myself was appalled to hear of scientists being convicted of manslaughter for an act of God. My take on this this event is that it is symptomatic of an increasing culture of blame and risk intolerance in the West. A local example in the Dandenong Ranges is where the minimum category for daily bushfire risk is called 'Low-Medium', which therefore applies even when it is snowing or flooding and the risk is actually zero. Ironically, when forcing experts to advise of even the most minimal of risks, we risk creating unnecessary community anxiety with the negative mental health outcomes that entails, followed by community apathy when repeated disaster warnings fail to materialise, which can have the opposite to the intended effect.

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  3. Charles Lawson

    Law academic

    Great article Mark. I think it is worth noting that the context in which these scientists and a government official were convicted is significant and has been overlooked by much of the shrill "vicitimizing scientists" commentary. It is important that in this case the opinions expressed were in the form of considered expert opinions made to a population about the way that they should act and they were relied on by some leading to their deaths. We'll have to see if the appeal courts agree. In the meantime…

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  4. Eddy Schmid

    Retired

    Day after day, week after week, year after year we are constantly drowned with events that the hierarchy always seem to get off scott free, and the man in the street bleeds.
    I feel I'm living in an insane asylum, the perpetrators always get off scott free and the innocent pay the price.
    That is, until events like this come along, a tiny sliver of sunlight breaks out into the dark gloom of our everyday lives.
    FINALY, people who have had the responsability to provide an early warning, and gained…

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  5. Alex Cannara

    logged in via LinkedIn

    Per the latest AAAS Science issue, the seismic data made clear something unusually strong was about to happen.

    This, by itself, should have been made broadly public. If it wasn't, then some form of penalty seems reasonable, and should include any overall administrators who influenced publication policy.

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  6. Alan Gibb

    Production Manager

    Surely all that will happen is that experts will over-state the risk and potential for harm of unpredictable events to avoid the risk of prosecution. In time then, the public (and government) will be ignoring advice when they should not be. Will we then be prosecuting them for getting that wrong too?
    By the way Eddy, Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt have adopted positions on Climate Change that are utterly at odds with the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and deliberately distort the science for the ends of their masters. They are not experts (neither of them could program a computer let alone model climate) so would you approve of them being prosecuted for misleading the ignorant? Or is it just people who say things you don't like?

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    1. Alex Cannara

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Alan Gibb

      Climate deniers & fact avoiders will have plenty of descendents peeing on their graves, unless they can hide their writings from the next generation.
      ;]

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  7. Eddy Schmid

    Retired

    Alan, to answer your question ;
    "so would you approve of them being prosecuted for misleading the ignorant? Or is it just people who say things you don't like?"
    On the contrary, for far too long nowadays, to many people who are in positions of authority have abused said postions by LYING,MISTRUTHS or blatent deliberate diversion from the topic at hand.
    You can hear it every day on talk back radio wherever you are, and NEVER, EVER, are these people held to account.
    So to answer your question, I say YES, they should be held accountable for their utterances if proven to be FALSE. That goes for politicians too, as well as academics, public servants the lot. No exceptions.

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  8. tim mande-jones

    doctor

    .Eddy , the scientists may be incompetent and need to be sacked but making them criminally negligent puts a different spin , and I agree with Alan that all will now happen is that Earthquake predictors will always overstate the risk. Look at ratings agencies like Standard and Poors , post GFC now all overstate the risks and that is now part of the problem with our recovery, and they arn't even being threatened with manslaughter.

    But I do sympathize though that the ordinary bloke always get ripped off , we should however target the the right people for our bile.

    So IMHO the scientists should be sacked and possible fined but in no way jailed.

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  9. Sara Carena

    logged in via Facebook

    Italy has the crime of "unnecessarily causing alarm" on its books as well. That is what Giuliani (the radon guy, who is NOT a scientist employed by any organization) was originally being accused of for predicting that a major earthquake in Sulmona (100 km south of L'Aquila, on a DIFFERENT fault) would occur on March 29, 2009 (one week before L'Aquila event). Now of course everyone thinks he predicted the latter. In fact, he threw the city of Sulmona, where nothing ever happened, into a panic. Actually…

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