Italy: Earthquake Hits the Earthquake Commission
May 27, 2011 • 11:56AM

A judge in L'Aquila, Italy, has indicted all members of the Commissione Grandi Rischi (Commission on Large Risks) of the Italian government, for failing to warn the population of the city of L'Aquila about the impending 6.3 magnitude earthquake of April 6, 2009 which killed more than 300 people. The Commission is composed by seven experts: government officials and top national geologists.

The Commission met on March 31, 2009, one week before the earthquake, because of mounting concerns about the seismic activity in the Abruzzo region, in central Italy. It concluded that it was "improbable" there would be a major quake, but the threat could not be discounted. Because of this, the experts have been accused of manslaughter and will go on trial Sept. 20.

The decision has prompted major national and international coverage in the media, raising the issue of 1) whether earthquakes can be predicted; and 2) whether the case should be tried by the courts rather than ruled on within scientific forums.

Leading researcher on earthquake precursors Prof. Pier Francesco Biagi has shed some light on the subject. Contrary to what some of the defendants, such as National Geophysics Society Chairman Enzo Boschi allege, "the issue of earthquake forecasts is not unsolvable." However, the L'Aquila story is complicated by the fact that the public has been polarized around the case of researcher Giampaolo Giuliani, who used his data on radon precursors to the earthquake to claim that he had forecast the earthquake. Radon emission is a precursor, but is not enough to build a reliable forecast science. It must be used in correlation with other parameters, such as electromagnetic activities on Earth, in the atmosphere, in the ionosphere, etc. Researchers on earthquake precursors, such as Professor Biagi and Russian physicist Sergei Pulinets, are advocating a "multi-parameter" approach in order to establish a credible early warning system.

Therefore, "it is not possible that one single individual would go on television and in the newspapers claiming that he has forecast an earthquake. We would have an ongoing, constant warning, because there are many crazy people around. Forecasts must be made by a government agency."

In the case of Giuliani's one-man and one-parameter warnings, Giuliani had even erred on the epicenter, indicating the town of Sulmona, 55 km south of L'Aquila. Had people from Sulmona been evacuated on the basis of his warnings, they would have been moved to L'Aquila, and the earthquake toll would have increased! As concerns the government Commission on Great Risks, it does have a responsibility, Biagi insists. The Commission met on March 31 for less than one hour and issued a release that more or less said: the population can be assured, there is no threat of a strong earthquake. "Well, if earthquakes are not predictable, as they say, the Commission made a mistake, because de facto it made a forecast. It was a forecast that there will be no earthquake, but still a forecast!"

The Commission should instead have said, according to Biagi: "We are watching a strong seismic sequence in the Aquila region. Seismic sequences are quite common in Italy; generally they tend to decrease in intensity and frequency in time. Sometimes, however, they culminate in a strong event (and this is seismic history, on the record!). We are not able to say what will happen in this case, but in any case there is a state of alert in the area, and those who want to leave, should do so. Technicians will be immediately sent to check the situation of various buildings and eventually single buildings will be condemned."

Professor Biagi was in L'Aquila on March 30 and he says you could just look at the Casa dello Studente to condemn it. During the earthquake, the building collapsed like a house of cards, killing eight students who were sleeping there.