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Italian Scientists Could Be Charged with Manslaughter for not Predicting Earthquake

Last year, L’Aquila, Italy was hit with a 6.3 magnitude earthquake that killed 308 people and devastated the city. (The Big Picture has a gallery from last year which shows just how bad the damage was.) It was a tragic event, and one year later, the town hasn’t yet fully recovered. But Italian authorities have taken a baffling approach in the aftermath of the quake: Prosecuting seismologists for not predicting the quake.

Earth Magazine:

A news report suggests that these researchers — seismologists and senior members of Italy’s Civil Protection Department (pdf) and the National Geophysics and Vulcanology Institute (INGV) — are being investigated based on their statements to the Major Risks Committee (part of the Civil Protection Department) on March 31, 2009, that a series of small earthquakes (none over magnitude 4.0) over the previous six months did not mean that a large earthquake was imminent. The Civil Protection Department and the Major Risks Committee are supposed to forecast possible risks and make recommendations on how to prevent danger from earthquakes, volcanoes, landslides, forest fires and other natural hazards.

But according to Italian newspaper La Gazetta del Mezzogiorno, the scientists didn’t blow off the possibility of an earthquake, but merely stated, based on their best interpretation of the evidence at the time, that a quake was “improbable, although not impossible”:

The general opinion of those present at the March 31 meeting was that tremors of recent months, which had climbed to 4.0 on the Richter scale, did not indicate a major quake was on the way.

“There is no reason to suggest that the sequence of low-magnitude tremors are a precursor to a major event,” said the committee’s deputy chair Franco Barberi, according to minutes of the meeting published by prosecutors.

INGV President Enzo Boschi said “just because a small series of quakes has been observed” does not point to a large quake, which he described as “improbable, although not impossible”.

Genoa University Seismology Professor Claudio Eva said there was “a very low likelihood” of a major disturbance, although stressed that a major earthquake could never be entirely ruled out in areas prone to seismic disturbance.

Suffice to say, this could set a nasty precedent for scientists in Italy. But as Italy’s conviction of four Google executives over a bullying video uploaded to YouTube with which they had nothing to do shows, the country does not have the best record for assigning legal liability particularly fairly, so long as someone takes the fall.

What’s worse: Last year, Italian prosecutors threatened to jail a geologist days before the quake because he predicted (correctly) that there was an earthquake coming, calling him an “imbecile” who “enjoy[ed] spreading false news.”

(Earth Magazine via Slashdot. title image via Federico Paoli’s Flickr)

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