L’Aquila Earthquake: Trial, Verdict and Response

Damage to a building following the L’Aquila earthquake in 2009 (via)

On Monday morning, an Italian court shocked the scientific community by convicting six scientists and an official to six years in prison on charges of manslaughter.  According to the prosecution, the team had failed to adequately warn of the dangers of a large earthquake, just days before a 6.3 magnitude quake hit the L’Aquila region, resulting in the death of 309 people.

Now, there’s a lot of information out there, and instead of restating much of what’s been said, I’m using this post to consolidate some of the articles I’ve come across.  First, those about the trial.  Then several from after the verdict was announced. Finally, some posts that give some thoughts on this outcome and what it means for scientists and the public in Italy (and potentially the world).

The Trial

Leading up to the earthquake, a “Swarm” of minor quakes were occurring in the L’Aquila region.  The team of scientists, including an official from Italy’s Civil Protection Agency, were called together to discuss whether or not these were “foreshocks” to an impending large earthquake (Note that even if true, there is no scientific evidence to support this claim).  Based on the fact that they are in a seismically active region with a history of large earthquakes, and that smaller earthquakes like these occur relatively often, t was determined that there was no evidence to suggest immediate threat of a  large earthquake.  Of course, we know what happens next:

BBC News: Italy scientists on trial over L’Aquila earthquake

Chris Rowan (Highly Allochthonous): If you’re waiting for an earthquake warning, you’re doing it wrong

Nature News: Scientists on trial: At fault?

The Guardian: Italy earthquake experts charged with manslaughter

The New York Times: Trial Over Earthquake in Italy Puts Focus on Probability and Panic

The Verdict

On Monday, October 22, 2012, a ruling of multiple counts of manslaughter with a sentence of six years imprisonment was passed on the seven defendants.  According to the prosecution, this was not because the team did not predict the earthquake, but because they did not adequately warn that it could happen.  Because of this, they are being held responsible for the deaths of over 300 people.  Here is coverage of the trial verdict:

BBC News: L’Aquila quake: Italy scientists guilty of manslaughter

CBC NewsItalian scientists guilty of manslaughter in 2009 earthquake

Giornalettismo: Terremoto L’Aquila, la sentenza: tutti colpevoli (L’Aquila earthquake, the judgement: all guilty)

Nature News: Scientists on trial: At fault?

The New York Times: Trial Over Earthquake in Italy Puts Focus on Probability and Panic

The Rebuttal

Following news of the trial verdict, many scientists (especially geologists) have publicly expressed their frustration with these results and explain how hazard assessment science may have been (or become) permanently damaged, and what this means for you:

Austin Elliot (The Trembling Earth)Conviction of Italian seismologists – a nuanced warning

ANSA: U.S. scientists criticise L’Aquila quake convictions

Chris Rowan (Highly Allochthonous): On the L’Aquila trial verdict: earthquake safety is about door locks, not fire alarms

Erik Klemetti (Eruptions): The Verdict of the l’Aquila Earthquake Trial Sends the Wrong Message

MSNBC: Earthquake experts condemn ‘appalling’ Italy manslaughter verdict

Nature News (editorial): Shock and law

New Scientist: Italian earthquake case is no anti-science witch-hunt

Steve Drury (earth-pages): Una parodia della giustizia?

In Summary

Based on everything I’ve read here and elsewhere, it seems clear to me that the trail was not so much about letting the public know a devastating earthquake was coming – everyone knows that’s impossible – but rather, that the team of experts did not warn of the possibility of a large earthquake.  Because of this, people assumed there was little to no threat of one occurring, which lead to several hundred deaths and even more injuries when the 2009 earthquake hit less than a week after the supposed “all clear” had been announced.  It comes down to communication and probabilities, and I agree with many that the conviction here is not only undeserving, but potentially damaging to future public awareness in Italy.

I feel that others have hit the nail on the head with this one, saying (in some sense) that people have a responsibility to understand the risks of living in a seismically active region.  The government does have a responsibility to communicate these risks, but without knowing when something will happen (earthquake,volcanic eruption, madman on a shooting spree or other tragic events), there’s no sense of urgency and people won’t respond with great concern.  Alternatively, if these scientists had decided to play it safe by warning  that a large earthquake could occur within the next week and one didn’t occur, we might be seeing them on trial for inciting a panic.

The problem now is that there’s no clear action that could have been taken to avoid the same result. Where is the line drawn that separates responsibility of the scientist from that of the public; that places blame on an individual or an “Act of God.”  Could the team have been more clear about the risks of earthquakes? Sure. But, in my opinion, the results would not have been significantly different.  Think about it: If a team of scientists came to your hometown and said a major earthquake could occur there, but they have no way of telling how large or when it might happen, would you leave town right away? If you said “Yes,” I’d bet money that you’re lying.

Probably the best summaries I’ve seen on this are from Chris Rowan and Erik Klemetti (above). Both explain the situation rather well, and how the results could actually be more damaging to the people seeking retribution.

3 responses to “L’Aquila Earthquake: Trial, Verdict and Response

  1. Pingback: Round Up Ready – Earthquake Edition | On a Quasi-Related Note·

  2. Hi, I am sorry but there is also here great misunderstanding and, consequently, misinformation. The very brief meeting the scientists did was organized by the chief of the Italian civil Protection with the aim to reassure the local population. The meeting served as a “media event” and people believed in the authority of scientist who said that several little shakes were favourable because they made a major quake more improbable. This is unscientific! For politica reason the scientists acted as the authoritative body that should give this information to the public. I think that scientists should accept the consequences to assume the role of authorities to give a message that was written political reasons. thanks

    • Hi Rlal. I completely agree with you that there has been much misunderstanding in this case. As this post was intended more as a link roundup than a blow by blow of what happened throughout the trial, I intentionally left out the details in favor of letting those that I linked to fill in that information. Austin Elliot did a very good job of this, explaining that the “media event” was in response to existing, unscientific claims that a major earthquake was coming and because the public was beginning to panic. He goes on to show how the scientists stated (multiple times) that there is no sure way of knowing and that these tremors may or may not mean anything. No definitive answer was given, though some hypothesizing was done, like the specific comment you cited about the small shakes relieving stress and making a major quake more improbable. There is no scientific evidence to support this, but they never claimed this as fact, just a possibility. What they did do was say there was no way of knowing and that there is no evidence to suggest a large quake is likely to happen, and therefore there is no reason to panic. Chris Rowan, Erik Klemetti, and Steve Drury all have great posts on this, too (above).
      HOWEVER, that last part is what got them in this mess (if you exclude the fear mongering that led to the meeting in the first place). They left it at “Don’t Panic!” and, despite stating multiple times in multiple ways that they can’t tell one way or the other, they didn’t reinforce the fact that a major quake could still occur. Subsequently, people listened to more optimistic portion.
      I doubt you’d find anyone who would disagree with the fact that this could have been handled better. In fact, I very much agree with you that more and more, scientists are beginning to speak directly to the public, and in doing so must recognize the responsibility they have as an authoritative figure, as well as the outcomes their words will have on the public.
      The problem in this case was finding that balance between alerting the public of the possibility of a large quake (a possibility that is always present in this region) or sending them into a panic at the thought that one may soon occur. I don’t feel that their erring on the side of “go have a nice glass of wine” deserves a prison sentence when there was no evidence to suggest they should act otherwise. They may be deserving of some form of punishment, I won’t argue that. But not prison and certainly not for manslaughter.

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