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Manslaughter trial of L'Aquila earthquake scientists will cause serious aftershocks

Dr Bernado de Bernardinis told residents to go home and enjoy a glass of red. Now he’s in the dock. AFP PHOTO/ TIZIANA FABI

This week, a committee of six scientists (including Dr Enzo Boschi, formerly president of Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology) and one government official, whose role was to advise the national government on matters of natural hazards, went on trial for manslaughter over the L'Aquila earthquake in 2009.

These are scientists of some distinction. Dr Boschi is one of the authors of a report, about to be published in Scientific Reports, on the Christchurch earthquakes of 2010 and 2011, the latter of which killed 181 people.

And yet, if convicted, the defendants face up to 15 years in jail.

So, what’s going on?

You’ll remember on April 6, 2009, a magnitude 6.3 earthquake killed 308 people in the Italian city of L’Aquila.

Filippo Monteforte/AFP

This followed an earthquake swarm (a cluster of small, regular earthquakes) that had produced quakes strong enough to be felt by the areas’s resident population every day for four months.

The case against the scientists, brought by local government officials, was initially understood to be about their failure to predict the earthquake (an error of omission).

But the scientists are now accused of providing “incomplete, imprecise and contradictory information” about earthquake risk (an error of commission).

Specifically, the local government’s prosecution argument is that the reassuring information provided by the scientists at a meeting held six days before the earthquake, to the effect that a major earthquake was not imminent, inhibited citizens from taking precautions that would otherwise have saved lives.

Especially since two large foreshocks occurred the day before the early morning mainshock.


It appears the government’s objective in holding the meeting with the scientists was to examine and debunk the alarming earthquake predictions being made by L’Aquila resident Giampaolo Giuliani, who is not a seismologist.

It was not, it appears, a meeting to hammer out practical information about any actual earthquake risk.

And it seems the scientists found themselves answering “yes” or “no” questions within the framework of deterministic prediction of earthquakes (which is simply not currently possible). They did this instead of making probabilistic forecasts (which seismologists can currently do).

But earthquake forecasting has very low absolute probabilities, even when increases in probability are high.

Ciro Fusco/EPA

At the time, Italian seismologists had estimated the probability of a large earthquake in the next three days had increased from one in 200,000, before the earthquake swarm began, to one in 1,000 following the two large foreshocks the day before the quake.

Alessandra Tarantino/ANSA Pool

Such low probabilities would make it difficult for scientists to place a large degree of importance on their forecasts.

But the scientists were not without fault.

Scientific errors made by members of the committee exacerbated the situation.

Government official Dr Bernardo De Bernardinis, who is an expert in floods, not earthquakes, incorrectly stated in a TV interview that the numerous earthquakes of the swarm were releasing stress and thereby lessening the risk of a larger earthquake.

He also infamously suggested residents enjoy a glass of Montepulciano doc instead of worrying about an impending quake.

It seems Dr Gian Michele Calvi, a structural engineer, misunderstood the seismologists.

308 people were killed in L'Aquila. Roberto Grillo/ANSA

He thought they were saying the earthquake swarm had no impact on the likelihood of a larger earthquake (while, in fact, the probability was estimated by the scientists to be several hundred times higher, as we have seen).

It’s maybe worth noting in passing that no action has yet been taken against the engineers who designed the buildings that collapsed and caused fatalities, or the government officials who were responsible for enforcing building code compliance.

Some commentators have suggested local government officials may be scapegoating the scientists to avoid attention being focused on their own failings.

So, beyond the livelihood, freedom and good-standing of those directly involved in this trail, what’s at stake here?

The prosecution of the scientists, especially if successful, is likely to jeapodise the self-same issue the whole L'Aquila situation dramatically highlights: the need for clearer communication between scientists and the public.

What an irony if the opposite comes to pass.

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