This blog provides commentary on interesting geological events occurring around the world in the context of my own work. This work is, broadly, geological fluid dynamics. The events that I highlight here are those that resonate with my professional life and ideas, and my goal is to interpret them in the context of ideas I've developed in my research. The blog does not represent any particular research agenda. It is written on a personal basis and does not seek to represent the University of Illinois, where I am a professor of geology and physics. Enjoy Geology in Motion! I would be glad to be alerted to geologic events of interest to post here! I hope that this blog can provide current event materials that will make geology come alive.

Banner image is by Ludie Cochrane..

Susan Kieffer can be contacted at s1kieffer at gmail.com

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Update on the trial of Italian Seismologists in L'Aquila

L'Aquila, central Italy. AP Photo/Guardia Forestale, HO
from here
Last fall, six Italian seismologists and one government official were accused of manslaughter involving victims who perished in the 2009 earthquake that devastated the city of L'Aquila, killing 309 people. The scientists were members of a government advisory body, the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks. The prosecutor of L'Aquila contended that they had falsely reassured the public about the likelihood of the earthquake.  The prosecutor acknowledged that earthquakes cannot be predicted, but he accused the scientists of misrepresenting the scientific uncertainty.  The accusation focuses particularly on the government official, Bernardo De Bernardinis, at the time the deputy technical head of Italy's Civil Protection Agency, quoting him as saying "The scientific community tells me there is no danger because there is an ongoing discharge of energy. The situation looks favorable." 

The scientists had been called to a meeting that had been charged with assessing the risk of increased seismic activity in the area. The scientists contended from the beginning that they did not make such statements, and have pointed out that that particular statement does not appear in the minutes of the meeting. The trial is scheduled for February 8, 2012, a few days from now.

In a new development, a wiretap revealed by the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, quotes a conversation on the day before (or week before??**) the meeting between Guido Bertolaso, then head of the Civil Protection, and Daniela Stati, an officer in the L'Aquila Provincial Administration. Bertolaso says "I will send them [the seismologists now on trial] there mostly as a media move. They are the best experts in Italy, and they will say that it is better to have a hundred shocks at 4 Richter than silence, because a hundred shocks release energy, so that there will never be the big one." If this wire tap conversation indicates that the Civil Protection had already decided the outcome before the meeting, the scientists may have good support for their argument that they never had a chance to make a serious risk assessment during the meeting.

Bertolaso has been scheduled to appear as a witness during the trial on February 8. He is now under investigation and it is possible that he will also be charged with manslaughter, though whether or not he will be included in the on-going trial or in a separate new trial is uncertain. The trial of the scientists and De Bernardinis began last fall, has nearly 300 witnesses, and is likely to last through much of 2012. Scientists involved with risk assessment are very concerned about the issues here and more than 5000, myself included, signed a letter, which you can read here, sent to President Giorgia Napolitano through the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  At the time of the letter, it appeared that the scientists were being charged with failure to predict the earthquake, not the current charges of misleading the public about the hazard. It is a very complex case. 

**It's very interesting that the Nature report and the Science report, both issued on January 26, have somewhat different facts and dates.

More information about the situation last fall is here. The Nature site about the wiretap development is here, and the Science article is here. The Science article has an inconsistency about whether the call was a week or just a day before the meeting.

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