Trial of Italian seismologists ‘misguided’, experts warn

A decision to charge a group of Italian seismologists and officials with manslaughter for failing to predict an earthquake that killed over 300 people “defies belief”, according to a UK expert in the field.

September 21, 2011

The group of seven on trial in the city of L'Aquila, which was hit by an earthquake that killed 309 people in 2009, include officials of the national Civil Protection Agency and several seismologists, including Enzo Boschi who was at the time president of the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology.

The local authority is also reported to be seeking damages of €50 million (£43.6 million).

The trial has been criticised by associations including the American Geophysical Union and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Dan Faulkner, senior lecturer in rock mechanics at the University of Liverpool, warned that the Italian authorities may be “shooting themselves in the foot” by bringing the case.

He said current understanding of earthquake prediction was “rudimentary at best”, and that it would take a “huge scientific effort” to gain the necessary knowledge to improve.

Such an effort “will not be encouraged prosecuting those who are best placed to make these advances”, he said.

“Earthquake prediction is a notoriously tricky business,” De Faulkner explained.

“Often we know the location of seismically-active faults, and hence can predict that earthquakes are more likely in these areas on time periods of tens to hundreds of years.

“In light of this, it defies belief that Italian scientists could be accused of ‘negligence’ with regard to predicting the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake in central Italy.

“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 utilize in order to predict earthquakes.

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

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