When a judge in Italy ruled Monday that seven experts were guilty of manslaughter for having failed to adequately warn citizens in the city of Aquila of a major earthquake, the verdict was met in the courtroom by stunned silence. Internationally, it was greeted with outrage. Scientists claimed that science itself was on trial. Columnists compared the conviction, in which each man was sentenced to six years in prison, to the persecution of Galileo. In Italy, on Tuesday, the head of the country’s disaster management agency resigned in protest. But whatever one thinks of the judgment–and there are more reasons than not to be concerned–the greatest danger may lie elsewhere: that anger over the verdict will distract from the very real lessons the case has to offer.
At issue is a meeting of the seven defendants, then members of a board called the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks, in Aquila on March 31, 2009. Small tremors had been rocking the area for months, light shocks that rattled buildings and sent frightened citizens into the streets. To make matters worse, a local resident who wasn’t a scientist was using an unproved method of earthquake prediction, analyzing concentrations of radon gas to forecast the time and place of tremors. His findings–which proved unfounded–were being picked up by the local media, adding to the sense of panic.
It was into this environment that the Italian government called the seven defendants, top men in their field, to a rare meeting outside of Rome. It was to all appearances more of a publicity move than a real scientific evaluation. Later, the Italian Daily La Repubblica would publish a wiretap transcript in which top government official can be heard describing the meeting as a “media operation.” We want “to calm down the public,” he says, speaking the day before the gathering. “And instead of you and me…we’ll have the top scientists in the field of seismology talking.”
After the meeting, the government official on the commission gave a statement to the media. “The scientific community tells me there is no danger, because there is an ongoing discharge of energy,” he said. “The situation looks favorable.” Six days later, the city was struck by a magnitude 6.3 earthquake. The shaking was felt in Rome, a two-hour drive away. Aquila’s historic city center–one of Italy’s largest–was devastated. More than 300 people were killed. Another 1,600 were injured. Thousands were left homeless. “They calmed the public by saying there was no danger when it wasn’t true,” says Antonio Moretti, a seismologist at the University of L’Aquila, who lost his house in the quake. “It’s not that they didn’t predict the earthquake. It’s that they said something they shouldn’t have.”
Indeed, what the government official had told the press turned out to be completely wrong. The discharge of energy isn’t a sign of decreased risk. It’s an alarm bell. In normal times, the statistical risk of a major earthquake in a given week along a fault-line like that in Aquila is something like one in 100,000, according to Thomas Jordan, director of the Southern California Earthquake Center at the University of Southern California and the author of a report on the Aquila quake commissioned by the Italian government. But when the ground starts to shake frequently, as it did before the major tremor struck, the chance soars that a disaster is on its way.
(PHOTOS: Deadly Earthquake Rocks Italy)
Had the scientists in Aquila consulted statistical earthquake models–not a common practice at the time in Italy or elsewhere–they would have found that the risk of a major quake that week had risen to somewhere around a 1% chance or possibly a couple of percentage points higher. Had that figure been properly communicated, it’s a fair bet that many residents of Aquila might have left their homes. After all, few people would board an airplane, for instance, if they knew they had a 1-in-100 chance of not arriving safely. “Italian custom is that if you feel an earthquake, people will self-evacuate for about 48 hours,” says Jordan.
For now, the seven defendants are not headed to jail. “In Italy, a first conviction is seen as provisionary,” says Markus Wiget, an expert in Italian penal law. Nearly all major cases are appealed and as many as half see the sentences overturned or modified during the process. The defendants, will however, be liable for some $10 million in damages. “It’s taken for granted that we will appeal,”" says Francesco Petrelli, the defense lawyer for one of the accused. Adds Jordan: “The government was biasing its comments to be on the reassuring side to counter the inflammatory predictions that were being made. But I don’t see the fingerprints of the scientists on that.”
In the meantime, the question is whether Italy, and indeed the rest of the world, will begin to learn from the mistakes in Aquila, encouraging residents and communities in earthquake zones to tune up their building codes and evacuation plans. Jordan’s report, which recommends that governments work to provide citizens with clear information on the probability of a major earthquake, has been translated into several languages, including Japanese and Chinese. “The report has been making a big impact worldwide,” says Jordan. “I’m optimistic that the coverage that this trial is getting will help motivate people to make some important changes.”