Italian quake verdict may open a door best left closed, for both scientists and the public

I cringed last year when I saw the announcement that several Italian scientists had been arrested; charged with inadequately warning the public before the deadly 2009 L'Aquila earthquake. As a meteorologist, my first thoughts were: "The earthquake was a tragedy and I feel for everyone who was affected by it, but this is a door that people are going to regret opening."

Well, reports are coming out now that after a year-long trial, an Italian court has found the group of eight seismologists and geological experts guilty of manslaughter for not providing adequate warning to the public. As of now, an appeals trial stands between the defendants and six years in prison.

[ Related: Italian disaster experts resign, shaken by predecessors' convictions in quake trial ]

Alan I. Leshner, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and executive publisher of Science wrote: "The basis for indictments brought by the local prosecutor in L'Aquila appears to be that the scientists failed to alert the population of L'Aquila of an impending earthquake. However, there is no way they could have done that credibly."

L'Aquila has a history of earthquakes and is especially prone to them because the town is partially built on the dry bed of an ancient lake — a type of terrain known to amplify seismic activity. According to the Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia (INGV), there have been nearly 500 earthquakes in Italy in the past 90 days, including 16 quakes in the area immediately surrounding L'Aquila. All of the earthquakes recorded in Italy in these 90 days were less than magnitude 4.5, ranked as 'light' on the Richter scale, and the vast majority were 'minor' tremors, under magnitude 2.5. Any major quakes on the linked map are in other parts of the world. So, small tremors happen quite frequently in the region, and although severe quakes have happened — there have been 7 in the history of the town, dating from 1315 to 1706 — they are rare.

As I've done above, science can offer a perspective on earthquakes in stating how many have happened, and how often major quakes happen, but actually forecasting them in another matter.

"Our ability to predict earthquake hazards is, frankly, lousy," said Seth Stein, an Earth sciences professor at Northwestern University in Illinois, according to LiveScience. "Criminalizing something would only make sense if we really knew how to do this and someone did it wrong."

In a news article published yesterday on the Science website, Vincenzo Vittorini, a resident of the L'Aquila area who lost his wife and daughter in the quake, is quoted as saying "I think it is truth and justice. It wasn't a trial against science; it was a trial against those who didn't know how to evaluate the risk, who didn't know to mitigate the risk. What we have been trying to say for 3 years has been affirmed today in an important way."

Mr. Vittorini's loss is a horrible tragedy. Every loss from that earthquake (and every other earthquake that has happened and will happen) is tragic. I would never seek to diminish that and I would never make light of his or anyone else's pain and suffering. However, this was most definitely a trial against science, because the science doesn't exist to predict earthquakes. To hold those eight scientists responsible for this is telling them, as well as every scientist, that they can and will be held accountable for things that are entirely out of their control.

[ Related: How to create hazard signs to last as long as the hazards do ]

I struggle to find a way to see this trial as anything but an act of revenge and a witch-hunt.

What is to come of this?

Even though some near-Earth asteroids are simply too small and too dark to see until they're nearly on top of us, will astronomers be convicted if a small near-Earth asteroid is suddenly found with only two days left before it reaches us, like the one detected back in January, but this one is big enough to survive its plunge into the atmosphere and it destroys a city?

Although just last week, vulcanologists stated that they are nowhere close to being able to accurately predict volcanic eruptions (although they are making small steps towards making that a reality someday), should they be worried that they'll be taken to court if a volcano blows on their watch?

Meteorologists are able to predict stormy weather typically a day or more in advance. However, even though there is a system of 'watches' and 'warnings' in place to help protect the public, there is no way right now to accurately predict far in advance exactly when and where tornadoes will form. Current warning times for tornadoes average out to about 15 minutes, with some rare cases where forecasters have been able to warn out to more than an hour ahead of time (with very well-developed storms or with tornadoes that last a very long time), but what if that's not enough time for people to get to safety? Will the forecasters be put on trial anyway, despite the limitations they are forced to deal with?

For that matter, how about doctors? Will they face prosecution because they failed to predict the outbreak of a deadly illness, even though people suffering from the disease only came to them after they had fallen ill and spread the disease to everyone around them?

With all of this said, I sincerely hope that the appeals court acquits these men of all charges, not only for their well-being, but also because of the dangerous legal precedent it will set if it does not. If this kind of trial catches on, who will want to do this kind of work with that kind of legal threat hanging over their heads?

[ Related: Montreal shaken by small earthquake but eastern half of the continent much more stable ]

Can people live without weather forecasts? Can they live without people monitoring earthquakes and volcanoes and rocks falling from the sky? Sure, they can (because they have in the past), but would that be a better world? Would people prefer complete uncertainty over knowing at least the chance of these events happening?

I know I don't.

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