Monday, October 22, 2012

Scientists jailed after false earthquake prediction

Seismologists are tasked with the prediction of earthquakes based on the elastic waves that ripple through the earth. This is not an easy feat, as relating wave patterns and other indicators to the time, intensity and location of the quake is not as well developed as we would like it to be. Nevertheless, scientists working as seismologists are employed in areas that are heavy on earthquakes to keep an eye on seismologic developments. In 2009, an earthquake hit the Italian region of Abruzzo, the epicentre being in L´Aquila. In court, the seismologists working in that area were jailed because they were unable to predict the earthquake. It is shocking to see that judges fail to understand that making such predictions holds a very large degree of uncertainty.

The 2009 earthquake that hit L´Aquila left around 300 people dead, and reached a force of 5,8 on the Richter scale. While there surely have been more powerful earthquakes around the world, a lot of buildings were damaged beyond repair due to low build quality. In addition to the corresponding high death toll, around 1500 people were hurt and more than 40.000 people became homeless.

According to the prosecutors, the seismologists could have predicted the earthquake due to all the forebodings: there have been several large foreshocks that warranted a warning, they said. The prosecutors claimed that the seismologists conducted a 'criminally mistaken' analysis, after which the court proceeded by handing out 6 years of jail time for the six people involved. What the seismologists actually said was that "it is impossible to rule out that an earthquake is coming, and that it is best to be prepared". While they did also claim that there was no good reason to assume that a heavy earthquake may be coming, this may actually have been true from the data they gathered.

As said before, prediction of earthquakes is a scientific field that is still not as well developed as we would like it to be. We can make predictions based on the data we gather from the wave measurements, but these do not allow us to make fully accurate predictions. As L'Aquila was hit with several thousands of foreshocks and aftershocks, it is unreasonable to give out a warning for each and every one of them. Those incidental shocks have been around for a long time prior to and after the 2009 quake, which already shows how hard it is to predict when evacuation is necessary.

It is commonly known that earthquake prediction is scientifically and technologically speaking not as advanced as other scientific fields. While it certainly needs to be investigated whether the seismologists have missed any clues, it was hardly the case in the 2009 L'Aquila quake. It is highly unreasonable to state that the seismologists should have given out warnings based on the situation at the time, which means that handing out long jail times is preposterous. Earthquake prediction is based on information on elastic waves and statistical models that are known to be very variable in their predictive power, which makes this lawsuit a shameful occurrence.

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