A year and a half ago I wrote about the trial of seismologists in Italy. Today, the verdict finally came down and it isn't good. In fact, it's a goddamn fucking travesty.

Six Italian scientists and an ex-government official have been sentenced to six years in prison over the 2009 deadly earthquake in L'Aquila.

A regional court found them guilty of multiple manslaughter.

Prosecutors said the defendants gave a falsely reassuring statement before the quake, while the defence maintained there was no way to predict major quakes.

My twitter feed, which has dozens of earth scientists, is conveying its dismay and horror at such a verdict, a horror made worse because earthquake prediction, as this court tried to define it, as the public wants it, and as science continues to search for, remains almost impossible. How can a court sentence someone to jail for something that remains almost not-real?

Some background on the events is in order. From my last diary:

L'Aquilla is a city located in central Italy. It is the capital of the Abruzzo region. It also sits in a region that is seismically active. All of Italy is, as it sits astride the boundary between Europe (well, Eurasia) and Africa, giving the nation its famous volcanoes such as Etna and Vesuvius, and earthquakes that have long rattled and destroyed cities for as long as we humans have been building them.

L'Aquilla was no different. An earthquake hit the place in December of 1315. Another one hit in January of 1349, during the height of the Black Death. A 1703 quake utterly flattened the place, as did another one in the summer of 1786. So it's not like the hazard was unknown. Perhaps, somewhat forgotten, as we've seen in recent quakes all over the world, the quake you expect and plan for may not be the one you get (see, Tohoku, both Christchurch/Canterbury quakes, and Port-au-Prince).

When 2009 rolled around, something odd happened in the Abruzzo region. A laboratory technician detected elevated levels of radon burping up from the ground, went on television, and stated a major quake was coming for the area. Now, it's well established that sometimes, radon emissions can sometimes portend a future quake. There is some evidence of this fact, and in fact, elevated radon was detected before March's megaquake off of Northeast Japan. But more often than not, this does not lead to much of anything.

The rest is history. The radon emissions (and again, not all radon emissions mean anything) then coincided with what we now know was a vigorous and noisy foreshock sequence. Not every major quake has these, again, we only know they were foreshocks after the fact. A panel convened (the group now headed to prison), basically said that "these small quakes may mean nothing." People took that to mean that everything was safe. Then the mainshock occured overnight on April 6, 2009. The city was devastated--modern buildings built to "code" performed as badly (if not worse!) as ancient ones, and 309 people died.

What I want to know is why the builders of those buildings (the modern ones, as obviously the ancient builders are long, long dead) aren't headed to trial next.

And it gets worse:

It took Judge Marco Billi slightly more than four hours to reach the verdict.

The seven were judged to have provided "inexact, incomplete and contradictory" information about the danger of the tremors that were felt ahead of 6 April 2009 quake, Italian media report.

See the part I bolded?

Read it again.

"The seven were judged to have provided "inexact, incomplete and contradictory" information about the danger of the tremors that were felt ahead of 6 April 2009 quake"

That's why this is so ridiculous. The information one will get is going to be "inexact, incomplete and contradictory." It will always be that until someone invents the magic required to predict earthquakes with precision. Earthquakes cannot be predicted with precision, and the panel now headed to prison was correct in pointing this out.At best they can be forecast based on statistical probability, and I noted last year that this region of Italy is in its seismic red zone. Seismic Hazard maps have their own problems and this is true (Italy also learned that this spring when the Po Valley was heavily shaken in a series of quakes--the Po Valley was not considered hazardous) but that's a topic for another time.

I wrote this in conclusion to my piece last May:

A guilty verdict, I believe, would be a chilling effect across a wide swatch of science, not just seismology. For one thing, radon emissions do not (often don't) result in large quakes afterwards. If we warned regions every time someone's radon detector went nuts, people would stop listening, in addition to the chaos such a warning would cause. And we already know what happens when people don't listen to warnings. In the Midwest, until recently, tornado sirens sounded for an entire area, instead of just targeting the area of town the tornado was actually going to hit. I suspect this may be part of the reason Joplin's death toll is so abnormally high, as every story I've read has stated that people heard the warnings for up to 20 minutes before the tornado scythed through the city. On the East and Gulf Coasts people ignore hurricane warnings, because the storms weakened or veered off at the last moment. This is especially true in areas that have not seen intense hurricanes for many decades, like New England (the last major storm was Bob in 1991, the last intense storm before that was Carol in 1954). This is a part of human psychology that can't exactly be helped, without constant education.

And it could cascade. What if the Japanese decide to sue their seismologists? A consensus over whether the fault that broke in March could produce an M9 (the last probable one occurring in the year 869) was slow to build, and the Japanese have always focused on the region southwest of Honshu. Or anywhere else, where infrequent, high risk hazards occur. We can't just charge the scientists for something that is largely not within their control, especially with earthquakes since they cannot be predicted, and only forecast under the fuzziest of conditions, with any real precision or accuracy.

Today, I note that Italians once locked away Galileo with the explicit complicity of the Catholic Church. Took centuries for this wrong to be corrected.

Today, I note scientists are being locked away for doing nothing wrong at all. Today I note that a court chose pseudoscientific bullshit. Today, I note this ruling is some motherfu*king bullshit. And that's all I have to say.


it's been pointed out to me that the charges were not for "not predicting a larger quake" but for "not adequately conveying risk and safety measures in case there's a larger quake." That's still pretty fucking goddamn ridiculous.

9:59 AM PT: UPDATE 2:

Apropos to "not adequately conveying risk and safety measures"...if your building is unreinforced masonry, you've accepted the risk if you live in an earthquake zone. I can't stress enough that modern buildings failed as badly as medivial ones. I worry now considerably about places like Naples  which will suffer a large earthquake at some point in the future.

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