How an earthquake shook the scientific community

In early 2009, the city of L’Aquila in Italy was struck by a seismic swarm; a devastating series of many small earthquakes. The swarm culminated with a mainshock on the 6th April 2009, measuring 6.3 on Richter scale and killing 309 people.

The local prefecture was damaged by the earthquake

The local prefecture was damaged by the earthquake
Image used under creative commons license from Wikimedia

Although it sounds dramatic, this earthquake is apparently quite run-of-the-mill in the Italian framework. But the earthquake marks an important point in modern scientific history, and above all highlights the key role of scientists as communicators.

The events

In spring 2009, the seismic swarm had reached maximum activity, with several earthquakes a day. After the a magnitude 4.0 earthquake on 30th March, a meeting was called in L’Aquila between government officials of the Civil Protection, and government-appointed scientists from the Major Risk Committee, the High Risk Committee and the National Earthquake Center. The aim of the meeting was to understand the evolution of the seismic swarm, and predict whether a major earthquake was on the way.

After the meeting, a press conference conveyed the message: “the scientific community have informed us there is no danger because there is an ongoing discharge of energy. The situation looks favorable”.

As we know, this was not true. On the 6th April a mainshock struck the city. As well as killing over 300 people, the shock left about 1600 people injured and more than 65000 homeless.

Afterwards, a group of local citizens said that many of the earthquake victims had been planning to leave their homes, but had changed their minds after the message from the committee. This led to a popular protest movement, which ended, in August 2009, with a request for a prosecutor to conduct a formal investigation. After a contentious trial, on the 22nd October 2012, seven members of the Major Risk Committee were declared guilty of multiple manslaughter charges, sentenced to 6 years in prison, indicted from public office, and fined 8 million euros as compensation to the victims’ families1.

A packed courtroom listens as the guilty verdicts are delivered in the trial of six Italian scientists and a government official
Photo used under editorial license from AFP/Getty

Global perception and errors

This case has resonated in the global scientific community, where the trial has been compared to Galileo’s. It has been seen by many as a statement about the ability or inability of scientists predict an earthquake, when actually, the convictions were about poor risk communication, and more broadly, about the responsibility scientists have to share their expertise in order to help people make informed and healthy choices. The trial was about the failure in risk communication from the Major Risk Committee, and the misunderstanding of the message that they tried to send to people2.

The real message that should have come out of the meeting was that earthquakes are unpredictable, and a strong earthquake in the next few days was unlikely, but not impossible. And yet, the message that people received was that the main earthquake was not going to happen and the situation was improving.

An aerial view shows the village of Onna, located ten kilometers from the Abruzzo capital L’Aquila, on the 8th April 2009
Photo used under editorial license from Getty

Future prospects

This event underlines the new roles demanded of modern scientists, as communicators and educators, especially if their work concerns any kind of risk for the population. Historically, the role of science in the community was minimal, it was always confined to an elite, small group of cultured people, although it drove the world to major changes such as progresses in medicine, in technology, and communication.

But now, with the expansion of media, from newspapers and magazines, to TV and the internet, and especially social media, it is possible for one scientist to rapidly reach a huge number of people. This gives scientists the opportunity to inform people about risk, which is in itself a great way to mitigate risk and to help protect vulnerable people. It is the responsibility of those in the scientific community to inform the public of risks they may face, and to be honest even when the truth is scary.

This is a two stage process – it is really important that education starts from the basics, teaching people what the word “risk” means, about scientific uncertainty, and about how to live with risk. The second stage is to communicate the science relating to current events, to inform people about the risks they face in the future, and how to mitigate them.

Only in this way, by opening our scientific world up to everyone, will we be able to avoid catastrophes such as L’Aquila. In the 21st Century, when one of the G8 countries is hit by a far-from-unusual earthquake, the disaster is one of poor communication, not poor science.

References

1. Nicola Nosengo (2012) Italian court finds seismologists guilty of manslaughter Nature
2. David E. Alexander (2014) Communicating earthquake risk to the public: the trial of the “L’Aquila Seven” Nat Hazards 72:1159–1173

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