L’Aquila quake: Italy scientists guilty of manslaughter (BBC)

22 October 2012

The BBC’s Alan Johnston in Rome says the prosecution argued that the scientists were “just too reassuring”

Six Italian scientists and an ex-government official have been sentenced to six years in prison over the 2009 deadly earthquake in L’Aquila.

A regional court found them guilty of multiple manslaughter.

Prosecutors said the defendants gave a falsely reassuring statement before the quake, while the defence maintained there was no way to predict major quakes.

The 6.3 magnitude quake devastated the city and killed 309 people.

Many smaller tremors had rattled the area in the months before the quake that destroyed much of the historic centre.

It took Judge Marco Billi slightly more than four hours to reach the verdict in the trial, which had begun in September 2011.

Lawyers have said that they will appeal against the sentence. As convictions are not definitive until after at least one level of appeal in Italy, it is unlikely any of the defendants will immediately face prison.

‘Alarming’ case

The seven – all members of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks – were accused of having provided “inaccurate, incomplete and contradictory” information about the danger of the tremors felt ahead of 6 April 2009 quake, Italian media report.

In addition to their sentences, all have been barred from ever holding public office again, La Repubblica reports.

In the closing statement, the prosecution quoted one of its witnesses, whose father died in the earthquake.

It described how Guido Fioravanti had called his mother at about 11:00 on the night of the earthquake – straight after the first tremor.

“I remember the fear in her voice. On other occasions they would have fled but that night, with my father, they repeated to themselves what the risk commission had said. And they stayed.”

‘Hasty sentence’

The judge also ordered the defendants to pay court costs and damages.

Reacting to the verdict against him, Bernardo De Bernardinis said: “I believe myself to be innocent before God and men.”

“My life from tomorrow will change,” the former vice-president of the Civil Protection Agency’s technical department said, according to La Repubblica.

“But, if I am judged by all stages of the judicial process to be guilty, I will accept my responsibility.”

Another, Enzo Boschi, described himself as “dejected” and “desperate” after the verdict was read.

“I thought I would have been acquitted. I still don’t understand what I was convicted of.”

One of the lawyers for the defence, Marcello Petrelli, described the sentences as “hasty” and “incomprehensible”.

‘Inherently unpredictable’

The case has alarmed many in the scientific community, who feel science itself has been put on trial.

Some scientists have warned that the case might set a damaging precedent, deterring experts from sharing their knowledge with the public for fear of being targeted in lawsuits, the BBC’s Alan Johnston in Rome reports.

Among those convicted were some of Italy’s most prominent and internationally respected seismologists and geological experts.

Earlier, more than 5,000 scientists signed an open letter to Italian President Giorgio Napolitano in support of the group in the dock.

After the verdict was announced, David Rothery, of the UK’s Open University, said earthquakes were “inherently unpredictable”.

“The best estimate at the time was that the low-level seismicity was not likely to herald a bigger quake, but there are no certainties in this game,” he said.

Malcolm Sperrin, director of medical physics at the UK’s Royal Berkshire Hospital said that the sentence was surprising and could set a worrying precedent.

“If the scientific community is to be penalised for making predictions that turn out to be incorrect, or for not accurately predicting an event that subsequently occurs, then scientific endeavour will be restricted to certainties only and the benefits that are associated with findings from medicine to physics will be stalled.”

Analysis

by Jonathan Amos – Science correspondent

The Apennines, the belt of mountains that runs down through the centre of Italy, is riddled with faults, and the “Eagle” city of L’Aquila has been hammered time and time again by earthquakes. Its glorious old buildings have had to be patched up and re-built on numerous occasions.

Sadly, the issue is not “if” but “when” the next tremor will occur in L’Aquila. But it is simply not possible to be precise about the timing of future events. Science does not possess that power. The best it can do is talk in terms of risk and of probabilities, the likelihood that an event of a certain magnitude might occur at some point in the future.

The decision to prosecute some of Italy’s leading geophysicists drew condemnation from around the world. The scholarly bodies said it had been beyond anyone to predict exactly what would happen in L’Aquila on 6 April 2009.

But the authorities who pursued the seven defendants stressed that the case was never about the power of prediction – it was about what was interpreted to be an inadequate characterisation of the risks; of being misleadingly reassuring about the dangers that faced their city.

Nonetheless, the verdicts will come as a shock to all researchers in Italy whose expertise lies in the field of assessing natural hazards. Their pronouncements will be scrutinised as never before, and their fear will be that they too could find themselves embroiled in legal action over statements that are inherently uncertain.

THOSE CONVICTED

Bernardo De Bernardinis, former deputy chief of Italy's civil protection department

Franco Barberi, head of Serious Risks Commission

Enzo Boschi, former president of the National Institute of Geophysics

Giulio Selvaggi, director of National Earthquake Centre

Gian Michele Calvi, director of European Centre for Earthquake Engineering

Claudio Eva, physicist

Mauro Dolce, director of the the Civil Protection Agency’s earthquake risk office

Bernardo De Bernardinis, former vice-president of Civil Protection Agency’s technical department

 

*   *   *

Scientists in the dock over L’Aquila earthquake

By Susan Watts 

BBC Newsnight Science editor

20 September 2011

Next week six scientists and an official go on trial in Italy for manslaughter over the earthquake in L’Aquila that killed 309 people two years ago.

This extraordinary case has attracted international attention because science itself seemed to be on trial, with the seven defendants apparently charged for failing to predict the magnitude 6.3 earthquake that struck on the night of 6 April 2009.

Scientists cannot yet say when an earthquake is going to happen with any precision, even in a seismically active zone. And over 5,000 scientists from around the world have signed a letter supporting those on trial.

Quake damaged buildings in OnnaThe earthquake was felt throughout central Italy

“I’m afraid that like an earthquake, nothing in this case is predictable. Let’s not forget, this trial is happening in L’Aquila, where the entire population has been personally affected, and awaiting a sentence that should not happen, but could happen,” Marcello Milandri said.Yet the lawyer for one of the scientists, in an interview with Newsnight, said it is possible his client will be convicted:

Seismologists can assess only the probability that a quake may happen, and then with a large degree of uncertainty about its properties.

In some circumstances, they may be able to say that the likelihood of an event has gone up, to help authorities prepare for an emergency, perhaps by concentrating on particularly vulnerable buildings or sectors of the population, such as school-children.

Weighing the risks

The signatories to the letter say the authorities should focus on earthquake protection, instead of pursuing scientists in what some feel is a Galileo-style inquisition.

The Commission calmed the local population down following a number of earth tremors. After the quake, we heard people’s accounts and they told us they changed their behaviour following the advice of the commission 

Inspector Lorenzo Cavallo

Newsnight went to L’Aquila to find out why this case has come about.

The prosecution team said they never intended to put science on trial, that they know it is not possible to predict an earthquake.

What they are questioning is whether the six scientists and the official on trial, who together constitute Italy’s Commission of Grand Risks, did their jobs properly.

That is, did they weigh up all the risks, and communicate these clearly to the authorities seeking their advice?

The local investigator, Inspector Lorenzo Cavallo, said: “The Commission calmed the local population down following a number of earth tremors. After the quake, we heard people’s accounts and they told us they changed their behaviour following the advice of the commission.

“It is our duty to investigate what has been said in each case and pass it on to the legal authority.”

Radon gas claims

A local journalist, Giustino Parisse, who lived in Onna, a small hamlet outside L’Aquila at the time, is one of those bringing the case.

In the weeks leading up to the major quake there had been a series of tremors. On the night of 5 April, several large shocks kept his children awake.

They were anxious, but he told them to go back to bed, that there was no need to worry, the scientists had said so.

Rescuers carrying bodyThe quake was the deadliest to hit Italy since 1980

His 16-year-old daughter and 17-year-old son both died in the earthquake that night, along with his father, when the family home collapsed.

He told Newsnight that people had been becoming increasingly anxious, in part because of warnings from a local nuclear scientist, Giampaolo Giuliani, that raised levels of radon gas in the area suggested to him an earthquake might be imminent.

How valuable this is as an indicator is widely disputed, and most experts in this field believe it is unreliable.

At the time the head of Italy’s civil protection agency, Guido Bertolaso,took the unusual step of asking his Commission of Grand Risks to fly to L’Aquila to discuss the situation.

They held a meeting that lasted only an hour or so, then the official now on trial, Bernardo de Bernadinis, who was then deputy director of the civil protection department, held a hurried press briefing, in reassuring tones.

Two of those on trial are linked to Italy’s National institute of Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV).

The institute’s head of public affairs, Pasquale de Santis, told Newsnight that the trial is a distraction, that seismologists have been saying since 1998 that this is a high risk area, and that people should instead be focussing on those who failed properly to enforce building codes in L’Aquila.

Funding needed

We put this to the mayor of L’Aquila, Massimo Cialente. He hopes the trial will prompt a national debate, and make it easier for him to raise the funds and support he needs to protect people against future earthquakes.

He said six days before the major quake he moved local children from a school damaged in an earlier tremor. He said he had no official budget to do that, because prevention is not a national priority.

“We closed the school and we had to transfer 500 pupils. I needed money, but I started the work without the money. If the quake did not happen I would be charged for that.”

Those bringing the case say the people of L’Aquila have a right to know what happened. Many hope the trial will bring some peace of mind.

But some of those who signed the letter of support told Newsnight they fear the case will dissuade scientists from leaving their labs to engage with politicians and the public.

John McCloskey, professor of geophysics at Ulster University, said these scientists have spent their lives producing some of the most sophisticated seismic maps in the world.

He said it is an “outrage” that they are now on trial for manslaughter, adding that he signed the letter because “their peril is our peril”.

*   *   *

Can we predict when and where quakes will strike?

By Leila Battison – Science reporter

20 September 2011

l'Aquila earthquakeSeismologists try to manage the risk of building damage and loss of life

This week, six seismologists go on trial for the manslaughter of 309 people, who died as a result of the 2009 earthquake in l’Aquila, Italy.

The prosecution holds that the scientists should have advised the population of l’Aquila of the impending earthquake risk.

But is it possible to pinpoint the time and location of an earthquake with enough accuracy to guide an effective evacuation?

There are continuing calls for seismologists to predict where and when a large earthquake will occur, to allow complete evacuation of threatened areas.

Predicting an earthquake with this level of precision is extremely difficult, because of the variation in geology and other factors that are unique to each location.

Attempts have been made, however, to look for signals that indicate a large earthquake is about to happen, with variable success.

Historically, animals have been thought to be able to sense impending earthquakes.

Noticeably erratic behaviour of pets, and mass movement of wild animals like rats, snakes and toads have been observed prior to several large earthquakes in the past.

Following the l’Aquila quake, researchers published a study in the Journal of Zoology documenting the unusual movement of toads away from their breeding colony.

But scientists have been unable to use this anecdotal evidence to predict events.

The behaviour of animals is affected by too many factors, including hunger, territory and weather, and so their erratic movements can only be attributed to earthquakes in hindsight.

Precursor events

When a large amount of stress is built up in the Earth’s crust, it will mostly be released in a single large earthquake, but some smaller-scale cracking in the build-up to the break will result in precursor earthquakes.

“There is no scientific basis for making a prediction” – Richard Walker, University of Oxford

These small quakes precede around half of all large earthquakes, and can continue for days to months before the big break.

Some scientists have even gone so far as to try to predict the location of the large earthquake by mapping the small tremors.

The “Mogi Doughnut Hypothesis” suggests that a circular pattern of small precursor quakes will precede a large earthquake emanating from the centre of that circle.

While half of the large earthquakes have precursor tremors, only around 5% of small earthquakes are associated with a large quake.

So even if small tremors are felt, this cannot be a reliable prediction that a large, devastating earthquake will follow.

“There is no scientific basis for making a prediction”, said Dr Richard Walker of the University of Oxford.

In several cases, increased levels of radon gas have been observed in association with rock cracking that causes earthquakes.

Leaning buildingSmall ground movements sometimes precede a large quake

Radon is a natural and relatively harmless gas in the Earth’s crust that is released to dissolve into groundwater when the rock breaks.

Similarly, when rock cracks, it can create new spaces in the crust, into which groundwater can flow.

Measurements of groundwater levels around earthquake-prone areas see sudden changes in the level of the water table as a result of this invisible cracking.

Unfortunately for earthquake prediction, both the radon emissions and water level changes can occur before, during, or after an earthquake, or not at all, depending on the particular stresses a rock is put under.

Advance warning systems

The minute changes in the movement, tilt, and the water, gas and chemical content of the ground associated with earthquake activity can be monitored on a long term scale.

Measuring devices have been integrated into early warning systems that can trigger an alarm when a certain amount of activity is recorded.

Prediction will only become possible with a detailed knowledge of the earthquake process. Even then, it may still be impossible” – Dr Dan Faulkner, University of Liverpool

Such early warning systems have been installed in Japan, Mexico and Taiwan, where the population density and high earthquake risk pose a huge threat to people’s lives.

But because of the nature of all of these precursor reactions, the systems may only be able to provide up to 30 seconds’ advance warning.

“In the history of earthquake study, only one prediction has been successful”, explains Dr Walker.

The magnitude 7.3 earthquake in 1975 in Haicheng, North China was predicted one day before it struck, allowing authorities to order evacuation of the city, saving many lives.

But the pattern of seismic activity that this prediction was based on has not resulted in a large earthquake since, and just a year later in 1976 a completely unanticipated magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck nearby Tangshan causing the death of over a quarter of a million people.

The “prediction” of the Haicheng quake was therefore just a lucky unrepeatable coincidence.

A major problem in the prediction of earthquake events that will require evacuation is the threat of issuing false alarms.

Scientists could warn of a large earthquake every time a potential precursor event is observed, however this would result in huge numbers of false alarms which put a strain on public resources and might ultimately reduce the public’s trust in scientists.

“Earthquakes are complex natural processes with thousands of interacting factors, which makes accurate prediction of them virtually impossible,” said Dr Walker.

Seismologists agree that the best way to limit the damage and loss of life resulting from a large earthquake is to predict and manage the longer-term risks in an earthquake-prone area. These include the likelihood of building collapsing and implementing emergency plans.

“Detailed scientific research has told us that each earthquake displays almost unique characteristics, preceded by foreshocks or small tremors, whereas others occur without warning. There simply are no rules to utilise in order to predict earthquakes,” said Dr Dan Faulkner, senior lecturer in rock mechanics at the University of Liverpool.

“Earthquake prediction will only become possible with a detailed knowledge of the earthquake process. Even then, it may still be impossible.”

What causes an earthquake?

An earthquake is caused when rocks in the Earth’s crust fracture suddenly, releasing energy in the form of shaking and rolling, radiating out from the epicentre.

The rocks are put under stress mostly by friction during the slow, 1-10 cm per year shuffling of tectonic plates.

The release of this friction can happen at any time, either through small frequent fractures, or rarer breaks that release a lot more energy, causing larger earthquakes.

It is these large earthquakes that have devastating consequences when they strike in heavily populated areas.

Attempts to limit the destruction of buildings and the loss of life mostly focus on preventative measures and well-communicated emergency plans.

*   *   *

Long-range earthquake prediction – really?

By Megan Lane – BBC News

11 May 201

Model figures on shaky jigsaw

In Italy, Asia and New Zealand, long-range earthquake predictions from self-taught forecasters have recently had people on edge. But is it possible to pinpoint when a quake will strike?

It’s a quake prediction based on the movements of the moon, the sun and the planets, and made by a self-taught scientist who died in 1979.

But on 11 May 2011, many people planned to stay away from Rome, fearing a quake forecast by the late Raffaele Bendandi – even though his writings contained no geographical location, nor a day or month.

In New Zealand too, the quake predictions of a former magician who specialises in fishing weather forecasts have caused unease.

“The date is not there, nor is the place” – Paola Lagorio, of the foundation that honours Bendandi

After a 6.3 quake scored a direct hit on Christchurch in February, Ken Ring forecast another on 20 March, caused by a “moon-shot straight through the centre of the earth”. Rattled residents fled the city.

Predicting quakes is highly controversial, says Brian Baptie, head of seismology at the British Geological Survey. Many scientists believe it is impossible because of the quasi-random nature of earthquakes.

“Despite huge efforts and great advances in our understanding of earthquakes, there are no good examples of an earthquake being successfully predicted in terms of where, when and how big,” he says.

Many of the methods previously applied to earthquake prediction have been discredited, he says, adding that predictions such as that in Rome “have little basis and merely cause public alarm”.

Woman holding pet cat in a tsunami devastated street in JapanCan animals pick up quake signals?

Seismologists do monitor rock movements around fault lines to gauge where pressure is building up, and this can provide a last-minute warning in the literal sense, says BBC science correspondent Jonathan Amos.

“In Japan and California, there are scientists looking for pre-cursor signals in rocks. It is possible to get a warning up to 30 seconds before an earthquake strikes your location. That’s enough time to get the doors open on a fire station, so the engines can get out as soon as it is over.”

But any longer-range prediction is much harder.

“It’s like pouring sand on to a pile, and trying to predict which grain of sand on which side of the pile will cause it to collapse. It is a classic non-linear system, and people have been trying to model it for centuries,” says Amos.

In Japan, all eyes are on the faults that lace its shaky islands.

On Monday, Trade and Industry Minister Banri Kaieda urged that the Hamaoka nuclear plant near a fault line south-west of Tokyo be shut down, pending the construction of new tsunami defences.

Seismologists have long warned that a major earthquake is overdue in this region.

But overdue earthquakes can be decades, if not centuries, in coming. And this makes it hard to prepare, beyond precautions such as construction standards and urging the populace to lay in emergency supplies that may never be needed.

Later this year, a satellite is due to launch to test the as-yet unproven theory that there is a link between electrical disturbances on the edge of our atmosphere and impending quakes on the ground below.

Toad warning

Then there are the hypotheses that animals may be able to sense impending earthquakes.

Last year, the Journal of Zoology published a study into a population of toads that left their breeding colony three days before a 6.3 quake struck L’Aquila, Italy, in 2009. This was highly unusual behaviour.

But it is hard to objectively and quantifiably study how animals respond to seismic activity, in part because earthquakes are rare and strike without warning.

A man in Christchurch carrying a young girl through stricken streetsCountries in the Pacific’s “Ring of Fire”, like New Zealand, are regularly shaken by quakes

“At the moment, we know the parts of the world where earthquakes happen and how often they happen on average in these areas,” says Dr Baptie.

This allows seismologists to make statistical estimates of probable ground movements that can be use to plan for earthquakes and mitigate their effects. “However, this is still a long way from earthquake prediction,” he says.

And what of the “prophets” who claim to predict these natural disasters?

“Many regions, such as Indonesia and Japan, experience large earthquakes on a regular basis, so vague predictions of earthquakes in these places requires no great skill.”

 

Who was Raffaele Bendandi?

  • Born in 1893 in central Italy
  • In November 1923, he predicted a quake would strike on January 2, 1924
  • Two days after this date, it did, in Italian province of Le Marche
  • Mussolini made him a Knight of the Order of the Crown of Italy
  • But he also banned Bendandi from making public predictions, on pain of exile

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