At 03:32 on 6 April 2009, an earthquake measuring 6.3 on the Richter scale devastated the Italian town of L’Aquila. The collapse or damage of nearly 20,000 buildings resulted in the loss of 309 lives, more than 1500 injuries and 65,000 people being displaced from their homes. Loss of life on such a large scale due to an earthquake in such a developed country was almost unprecedented. More than three years later, the city still lies devastated, and residents are trying to understand how such a disaster was allowed to happen.
The preceding few months had been characterised by a series of low-level tremors known as seismic swarms. These came in at up to 3.5 on the Richter scale, and were understandably worrying the town’s residents. Six days before the earthquake struck, the Italian National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks met in L’Aquila to assess the situation.
According to a report in Nature, Bernardo De Bernardinis, an official speaking on behalf of the risk assessors, reassured the residents in a press conference that the seismic activity posed “no danger” because the tremors would be releasing seismic pressure. When a journalist asked if they should all go home and have a glass of wine, De Bernardinis replied “absolutely”.
“The scientific community continues to assure me that, to the contrary, it’s a favourable situation because of the continuous discharge of energy” he said.
On Monday evening this week, after much discussion, six prominent geophysicists who had assessed the risks to L’Aquila, were convicted of manslaughter along with De Bernardinis. The court decided they had provided incomplete and inaccurate information to the public, which led to residents being falsely reassured. Misconceptions about the convictions are circulating through the shocked scientific community. The sentences, each for six years, are not for failing to predict the earthquake correctly, but rather for not communicating their understanding of the risks involved in a responsible manner.
The prosecution alleged that the seismologists should have stepped in after the press conference to highlight the inherent uncertainties in predicting earthquakes so that the citizens of L’Aquila could have better prepared themselves. According to the report in Nature, the minutes of the risk assessment meeting weren’t compiled until after the earthquake had occurred. And the National Commission didn’t issue any official recommendations to the community, contrary to their legal obligation.
The fact that the trial was conducted by a local prosecutor, a local judge and a local jury makes it difficult to believe that the decision to convict was unbiased. It would be understandable if they had sought some sort of compensation.
The seismologists in question represented the very best of Italian natural disaster research, and since the decision other top seismologists have resigned from government advisory bodies in Italy, including the chair and vice-chair of the Major Risks Commission.
The implications of all this seem to be clear; scientists must take responsibility for effectively communicating the risks and uncertainty associated with their work. But should the responsibility to ensure the media understand risk be so great that failure to do so results in a six year jail sentence?
IMAGE: Eurofruit, Asiafruit and Americafruit, Flickr