Friday, 27 May 2011

Shaken and stirred

On April the 6th, 2009, there was an earthquake which killed 309 people in L'Aquila, Italy. Thousands of people were made homeless and a national disaster was declared. Two years later, though, there are still some after-effects being felt. Legal, not geological.

Increased seismic activity in the area had prompted the setting up of a committee to assess the threat posed. The group felt that while the main fault was clearly active, the consistent series of smaller movements they had experienced was ensuring energy was being released and that, consequently, the chances of a larger scale quake were lessened. Their findings were summarised and communicated to the public by a non-geologist from the group, a government official from the Civil Protection Agency. He felt the geologists had been relatively positive and gave the opinion that the threat of a major earthquake wasn't too serious.

And then...

Currently, six seismologists from that committee are to face trial for manslaughter alongside the government official. Apparently they are being prosecuted because the report offered 'incomplete, imprecise and contradictory public information.' For being wrong. Because they had falsely assured the public. Firstly are we to assume 'the public' will have taken this report as a cast-iron promise nothing bad would happen? I doubt that. Let's also leave aside the fact that some of the geologists feel their discussions had been misrepresented  - that may be legal positioning in advance of the blame game ahead. Predicting earthquakes - while aided now by far more technology and understanding than ever before - is still a very, very difficult job. Even coming reasonably close to accuracy is mightily impressive, given the number of factors at play. So can these guys be blamed? Be given ten year prison sentences for not being able to predict natural phenomena? To me, that seems far beyond harsh. It's looking for someone to blame.

The logistical and financial nightmare of evacuating a city means it rarely happens. Lost trade, the risk of crime, moving the elderly and sick, etc, etc. There have been occasions when seismologists have been advised to play down potential risks to avoid widespread panic, too. Then where would the blame lie? Who would carry the can? If this prosecution goes ahead, surely there will be far fewer seismologists willing to offer risk assessment short of advising everyone to run at the first sign of a tremor. You could employ anyone to wave their arms about and scream, you don't need a seismologist for that. This is stupid and may have serious repercussions.

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