Editorial: L’Aquila, a bizarre indictment

Published in The Hindu on June 25, 2010

In what may go down in history as one of the more bizarre indictments of modern times, six Italian scientists and one government official could face charges of manslaughter for a failure to do something that science has no answer for. The provocation: the Commission for High Risks, an expert Italian group that advises the Civil Protection Agency of Italy on the risks of natural disaster, failed to predict an earthquake! It had met just a few days before a quake measuring 6.3 on the Richter scale struck L’Aquila in Abruzzo, on April 6, 2009. In Italy, indictment usually precedes a request for court trial, and this one was issued on June 3, 2010. The quake killed about 300 people, injured 1,600 more, and left close to 65,000 homeless. Predicting earthquakes with certainty is the holy grail of earthquake sciences. Despite decades of research, no reliable technique or method has yet been found. Although the causal factors, and even the rates at which tectonic plates move and stress builds up along certain faults, are known, scientists can forecast with some success only the long-term rates of quake occurrence. Prediction that can save lives is about providing reliable information of a quake of a certain magnitude striking a locality during a short window period. Even in the case of Parkfield in California, a major earthquake-prone area that is intensely monitored, the United States Geological Survey’s 1983 forecast of a quake of magnitude 6 occurring between 1988 and 1993 went wrong. The quake struck in 2004.

Various phenomena such as radon levels, foreshocks, behaviour of animals, and the warping of the earth’s crust have been investigated, but none can be used with a high level of confidence to predict the timing or magnitude of a quake. The prediction of a quake days before it struck by Giampaolo Giuliani, a technician at the Gran Sasso National laboratory in Abruzzi, based on abnormal radon gas concentrations in the air, was ignored. Abnormal radon level has been used as a precursor of earthquakes for some time, but there is no real evidence to use it as a predictor of quakes. In fact, rainfall and even atmospheric pressure changes can cause radon release. If quakes cannot be predicted with great accuracy, the only alternative to save lives is risk mitigation. Strict adherence to the code, retrofitting old buildings, and building public awareness are the only ways to save lives. Prosecuting scientists for failing to do something they are not equipped to do yet is both over the top and outrageously unjust.