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When lack of early warning becomes manslaughter

Memories of a 2005 quake that killed 73,000 people caused fear and panic when a less powerful earthquake hit Mansehra, about 100 km north of Islamabad, on 28 February 2010
(Rahat Dar/IRIN)

The recent conviction in Italy of seismologists on manslaughter charges, based on their failure to warn residents about a 2009 earthquake, could have serious repercussions for earthquake preparedness, experts say.

“This trial and the verdict represent an extremely worrisome precedent that must be considered by scientists when offering their services in the interests of public safety,” Warner Marzocchi, chief scientist at Italy’s Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia (National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology), told IRIN.

In a regional Italian court on 22 October, six scientists and a government official were convicted of negligence for underestimating the magnitude of what turned out to be a fatal earthquake. The judgement said the scientists knew the real risk but failed to adequately warn the public.

Found guilty of multiple manslaughter - the first job-related charge of this kind for anyone working in early warning worldwide - they were sentenced to six years imprisonment.

The 6.3-magnitude earthquake on 6 April 2009 killed more than 300 people, displaced another 25,000 and destroyed 10,000 buildings in the university town of L’Aquila, about 85km northeast of Rome.

The defendants gave a “falsely reassuring” statement to the public before the earthquake hit, according to the court decision. The defence maintained there was no way to predict when a major earthquake will happen.

Science’s limits

According to the US Geological Survey (USGS), scientists have only been measuring earthquakes for 100 years.

While meteorologists can effectively predict the path and strength of a storm, the same is not yet possible with earthquakes, said Peeranan Towashiraporn, head of the disaster assessment and monitoring department at the Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre (APDC) in Bangkok.

“We follow proven methodologies and quality data, but this science is still immature and… not advanced enough to understand everything occurring underground,” Towashiraporn continued. “We talk about earthquake risks as a probability and chance - it’s a projection.”

The L’Aquila quake was preceded by small tremors; following such minor seismic events, the probability of a large, fatal aftershock is mathematically unlikely - a probability of less than 1 percent, according to seismic research.

Early warning for a disastrous earthquake is “nearly impossible to do,” said Surono, head of Indonesia’s Volcanology and Geological Hazard Mitigation Centre. (Like many Indonesians, he goes by only one name.)

Since 2000, Indonesia has had 45 earthquakes that have killed nearly 176,000 people, making it one of the world’s most deadly places to be in an earthquake, according to the Belgium-based Centre for Research on Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED).

It is possible to forecast whether an earthquake is likely to hit, but the specifics are still unknown. “We cannot tell the time. We would know earthquake hazard zones based on the historical eruptions, but we won’t know when the earthquake will occur,” Surono said.

“What we have are probabilistic forecasts - hazard models based on a long-term, daily possibility of a large event which is very low, say once in 100 or 1,000 years,” said Ian Main, professor of seismology at the UK’s University of Edinburgh.

Risk communication

Italy’s manslaughter convictions may dissuade disaster experts from speaking openly about natural hazards, warned ADPC’s Towashiraporn. “Scientists may be very reluctant to share predictions if they will be legally bound to the information.”

Italian scientist Marzocchi said seismic scientists will want amnesty before issuing public statements. They might also exercise excessive caution in their warnings, which could lead to false alarms. These, in turn, could lead to the long-term risk of scientists losing credibility with the communities they are trying to keep out of harm’s way, he said.

“There is a pressure from society and policy makers on scientists to be accurate. Society wants to know accurate answers, but scientists… do not predict. Scientists only forecast and analyze,” said Fouad Bendimerad, chairman of the board of Earthquakes and Megacities Initiative (EMI), a disaster-preparedness NGO in the Philippines.

Complicating matters is the poor, sometimes non-existent, communication among scientists, policy-makers and decision-makers, Bendimerad added, calling for more interdisciplinary research on the best ways to communicate seismic risks.

According to the California-based Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (EERI), earthquake specialists need more training on how to communicate their scientific findings, and the public needs help interpreting them. Accurately communicating the risk of an earthquake based on still-evolving science and technology is one of the biggest challenges s eismologists face, according to the Japan-based International Association for Earthquake Engineering.

The scientists in L’Aquila experienced this challenge first-hand, according to Main. At a government press conference preceding the quake, “the message [that the possibility of an imminent earthquake, while small, could not be ruled out] was mistranslated by an official under severe pressure,” he said.


Considering the imprecision of earthquake early warnings, preparedness is critical, Towashiraporn said.

A 2004 EERI report highlighted recent major earthquakes - in Kobe, Japan, in 1995; in Armenia, Colombia, in 1999; and in Northridge, California, in 1994 - as proof of the need for emergency planning in seismic hazard areas.

“[The L’Aquila case] could be used to heighten awareness, or take some preparatory action at an appropriate level,” Main said.

According to CRED, earthquakes have killed more people in the last 10 years than any other natural hazard in the world.

Preparation is particularly needed in Asia, where there were three times as many deaths from earthquakes and tsunamis than elsewhere in the world. A 2010 World Bank report predicts it is “only a matter of a few years before the next major earthquake strikes East Asia and the Pacific. It is only a few decades, at most, before a major earthquake occurs near a metropolitan area.”

For years, experts have predicted a large-scale earthquake in Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley, where some 2.5 million people live, many of them in the major metropolis of Kathmandu.

Amod Dixit, executive director of the non-profit National Society for Earthquake Technology-Nepal in Kathmandu, says forecasts are only one part of saving lives. “Whose job is it to make buildings safer? The job of scientists is to analyze and present the possibility. Implementation is the job of government.”

Engineers estimate an earthquake comparable to the area’s 1934 earthquake, which killed some 8,000 people, would kill more than 100,000 today, injuring another 300,000 and damaging six out of 10 structures. There is little search-and-rescue capacity in the city, where only 15 fire engines serve the entire Kathmandu Valley population - and 12 of them were not even operating earlier this year.

What next?

In 2011, after the L’Aquila disaster, the Italian government set up an International Commission on Earthquake Forecasting for Civil Protection; both Main and Marzocchi are members.

The panel recommended developing protocols to handle “low-probability” events. No government in the world has yet established protocols on how to translate scientific information to communities at risk of an earthquake - no matter the probability.

The commission also advised that scientific findings be preserved to ensure nothing is lost in translation by government intermediaries when earthquake risks are communicated to the public.

But the panellists remained humbled by the field’s uncertainty. “Most of seismology is forensic. We learn something new after each event,” said Main.

“If this basic concept is not accepted, scientists, decision-makers and indeed anybody involved in public safety may always be prosecuted after the occurrence of an unlikely event,” added Marzocchi.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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