Seismologists charged with manslaughter

Thousands of scientists are protesting over a decision to prosecute italian seismologists for manslaughter – by failing to accurately predict the L’Aquila earthquake.

Six days before the magnitude 6.3 earthquake hit last April, there was a meeting of the Commissione Grandi Rischi – the Commission for High Risks – at which it was decided that there was not sufficient risk of a major quake to justify a serious alarm.

And because of this decision, two weeks ago the L’Aquila Prosecutor’s office decided to charge seven members of the Commission, other scientists and and civil protection officials with manslaughter through gross negligence.

Nearly four thousand scientists have now signed an open letter to Italian president Giorgio Napolitano protesting about the decision to prosecute.
“The allegations against the scientists are completely unfounded,” it reads. “Years of research worldwide have shown that there is currently no scientifically accepted method for short-term earthquake prediction that can reliably be used by Civil Protection authorities for rapid and effective emergency actions.”

Over 300 people were killed in the earthquake, and the case has been launched in response to claims that people would have fled the area if they’d been warned.

“Those involved were highly qualified individuals who should have provided the public with different answers,” L’Aquila’s chief prosecutor, Alfredo Rossini, told La Gazzetta del Mezzogiorno. “People died and we could not just ignore this line of investigation.”

Richard C Aster, president of the Seismological Society of America, says the decision to prosecute shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what science can and cannot do.

“There is currently no scientifically validated method for short term earthquake prediction, much less one that could reliably be used by government authorities for rapid and effective warnings in Italy or elsewhere,” he says.

“Pursuing legal action against members of the seismological community after an earthquake is unprecedented and reflects a misunderstanding of the science of earthquakes.”