Franco Volpato / Shutterstock
A view of some of the destruction caused by a powerful earthquake that struck the village of Onna in Aquila, Italy, in 2009.
By
updated 9/20/2011 1:26:13 PM ET 2011-09-20T17:26:13

Six Italian scientists and one government official were set to go to trial in Italy on Tuesday on charges of manslaughter for not warning the public aggressively enough of an impending earthquake that killed more than 300 people in 2009.

While such a trial is unlikely on U.S. soil, experts say, American geologists and seismologists are watching closely, surprised at a legal system that would attempt to criminalize something as uncertain as earthquake prediction.

"Our ability to predict earthquake hazards is, frankly, lousy," said Seth Stein, a professor of Earth sciences at Northwestern University in Illinois. "Criminalizing something would only make sense if we really knew how to do this and someone did it wrong."

Henry Pollack, a professor of geology at the University of Michigan, echoed Stein's concerns.

"The whole thing seems bizarre to me," Pollack told LiveScience.

A deadly quake
The case has its roots in 2009, when a swarm of small earthquakes shook the central Italian region of Abruzzo in Italy. The region is seismically active, but knowing whether little shakes are leading up to a big temblor is impossible, seismologists say. A 1988 study of other quake-prone Italian regions found, for example, that about half of large quakes were preceded by weaker foreshocks. But only 2 percent of small quake swarms heralded a larger rupture. [See Photos of L'Aquila Earthquake Destruction]

Enzo Boschi, the then-president of Italy's National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology and now a defendant in the case, seemed to allude to this uncertainty in a March 31, 2009, meeting in L'Aquila, a medieval city in Abruzzo. Comparing the situation to a large quake that struck L'Aquila in 1703, Boschi said, "It is unlikely that an earthquake like the one in 1703 could occur in the short term, but the possibility cannot be totally excluded."

In a press conference after the meeting, however, Department of Civil Protection official Bernardo De Bernardinis, also a defendant in the case, struck a more soothing tone, saying that the situation posed "no danger" and urging residents to relax.

Less than a week later, on April 6, a 6.3-magnitude quake struck in Abruzzo. L'Aquila's medieval buildings crumbled, killing 309 people and injuring more than 1,500.

Seismic uncertainty
The case against the scientists and De Bernardinis states that they did not do their duty in communicating risk to the citizens of L'Aquila and holds them responsible for manslaughter. A guilty verdict could carry up to 15 years in jail. The families of the dead are also seeking millions of dollars in civil damages.

But geoscientists say that asking the Italian scientists to predict when and where a quake might strike is like asking them to look into a cloudy crystal ball for an answer.

  1. Science news from NBCNews.com
    1. NOAA
      Cosmic rays may spark Earth's lightning

      All lightning on Earth may have its roots in space, new research suggests.

    2. How our brains can track a 100 mph pitch
    3. Moth found to have ultrasonic hearing
    4. Quantum network could secure Internet

"I think that what people don't understand is just how low the risk was. These swarms of earthquakes do happen all the time," said John Vidale, a seismologist at the University of Washington. "We have swarms in my state, Washington, all the time, and I'm not sure of a single one that's ended with a large earthquake."

Although scientists — and cranks — have tried, there's no way to predict an earthquake days or weeks in advance. You'd have to fully understand the stresses deep in the Earth, Vidale told LiveScience, and you'd have to know exactly which parts of the crust are so weak that those stresses are going to cause ruptures.

"There are reasons to think that earthquakes just might not be predictable without knowing far more than we'll ever know about the stresses deep in the Earth," Vidale said.

Perhaps more surprisingly, even our understanding of what areas are at most risk of earthquakes is extremely limited, Northwestern's Stein told LiveScience. For example, no one expected that the section of fault that ruptured to cause Japan's horrific 9.1-magnitude Tohoku quake in March 2011 could result in a quake that large. The maximum was supposed to a magnitude 8, Stein said. Quakes are measured on a logarithmic scale, so a magnitude 9 quake has 10 times the amplitude and about 31 times more energy release than a magnitude 8, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

The underestimate of the fault proved deadly, as Japanese seawalls were built under the assumption that extra-large quakes wouldn't produce any extra-large tsunamis. While a magnitude-8 quake might cause a 32-foot tsunami, Stein said, a magnitude-9 could cause a tsunami twice as tall.

Japan is not the only spot where Earth's vibrations have been underestimated. Seismologists predicted less shaking in the 2010 Haiti earthquake than actually occurred. And a deadly magnitude-7.9 earthquake in Wenchaun, China, occurred in a spot previously rated as low-risk.

A big part of the problem, Stein said, is that the Earth moves on a different schedule than the human life span. Seismic records only stretch back 100 years, and human writing a few thousand years past that. Stein and his colleagues looked at the seismic records and more than 2,000 years of written records in northern China and found that, during that timeframe, no magnitude-7 or greater quake ever hit at the same place on a fault more than once.

"Every time there's a big earthquake, it's on an area that hasn't been active for 2,000 years," Stein said.

In other words, if Italian scientists are criminally liable for bad predictions, wouldn't all seismologists be just as criminal for their imperfect predictions?

"There's sort of a pattern here," Stein said. "Nobody knows how to do this very well. Countries have large programs to make hazards maps … these things are often big failures. Given that, the case for criminalizing it seems very small."

Could it happen here?
In the United States, the legal system would likely agree with Stein. According to Adam Kolber, a law professor at Brooklyn Law School, the Italian case would be very unlikely to go forward in the U.S.

First of all, for a manslaughter conviction, the experts would have to have what's called mens rea, Kolber told LiveScience. That means that they would have to be aware of a substantial and unjustifiable risk that their statements would cause someone's death.

Secondly, Kolber said, you'd have to prove that the statements directly caused someone's death.

"You have to find some particular person for whom if they were told there is a substantial risk of an earthquake that they would have left town or something like that, and that's going to be hard to show," Kolber said.

Finally, First Amendment freedom of speech rights might prevent prosecution.

"To the extent that they're giving their scientific opinions, there's a First Amendment interest in protecting the speech," Kolber said.

Closing down science communication
Scientists contacted by LiveScience said they weren't personally concerned about prosecution for sharing their scientific opinions with the public, though some said they worried about a chilling effect on scientific openness in Italy.

"This is a very big pile of quicksand that will almost certainly tamp down any attempt to provide warnings about natural disasters," Michigan's Pollack told LiveScience. 

The case does highlight the need to be upfront with the public about the limits of scientific predictions, said Erik Klemetti, a professor at Denison University in Ohio who specializes in volcanism and communicates with the public via his blog, Eruptions.

"Prediction of volcanic or earthquake hazards is not the game where you want to be going out and making bold, specific predictions, because we just really don't have the capability to do that," Klemetti said.

The case may take months to settle, and it remains to be seen whether Italy will hold scientists responsible for the deaths in L'Aquila. In the meantime, geoscientists are remaining humble about their understanding of tectonic forces.

"What you want to do in this business is to show humility in the face of the complexities of nature," Stein said. "I think that's probably a good thing for everybody to bear in mind."

You can follow LiveScience senior writer Stephanie Pappas on Twitter @sipappas. Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter @livescience and on Facebook.

© 2012 LiveScience.com. All rights reserved.

Interactive: What causes earthquakes?

Photos: Italy in mourning

loading photos...
  1. Mourners attend the state funeral ceremony for earthquake victims, in L'Aquila, on Friday, April 10. The earthquake on Monday was the deadliest to hit Italy in almost 30 years. Four days after the quake that made L'Aquila and nearby towns and villages uninhabitable, the death toll reached 287, including at least 20 children. (Peri - Percossi / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi reacts as he attends the funerals for quake victims near L'Aquila, central Italy, on Friday. (Luca Bruno / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A woman and her son leave a rose during the state funeral ceremony for eathquake victims near L'Aquila, on Friday. (Alessandro Garofalo / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Relatives mourn the victims of the earthquake during the collective funeral at the Guardia di Finanza Academy, in Coppito, a village near L'Aquila, Italy, on Friday, which was declared day of national mourning in Italy. (Marco Di Lauro / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A man walks through rubble in L'Aquila, Italy. (Maurizio Degl'innocenti / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A woman reacts in a tent camp where earthquake victims reside in Aquila. A series of aftershocks disrupted rescuers on Thursday as they picked through rubble in a search for survivors of Monday's earthquake in central Italy. (Alessandro Garofalo / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Mario Tudisco, a volunteer clown, gives a chocolate Easter egg to a child who was evacuated following the earthquake, in the Abruzzo capital L'Aquila. (Andreas Solaro / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. The coffin of earthquake victim Carmelina Iovine, 22, is carried during her funeral in the Italian town of Raiano. (Daniele La Monaca / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Friends and relatives grieve during the funeral of earthquake victim Carmelina Iovine, 22, in the Italian town of Raiano. (Daniele La Monaca / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Silvio Berlusconi, wearing a firefighter's helmet, comforts an elderly woman in L'Aquila, central Italy. (Livio Anticoli / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Firefighter Roberto Contu of the Rome's S.A.F team inspects the damaged Duomo church downtown Aquila April 8, 2009. The earthquake in central Italy on Monday has badly damaged several historic churches and other heritage sites, the Culture Ministry said. At least four Romanesque and Renaissance churches and a 16th century castle were partially destroyed by the quake centred in the medieval city of L'Aquila. (Alessandro Garofalo / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A woman holds her child in the tent camp of L'Aquila, central Italy, on Wednesday, as strong aftershocks caused further fear among residents in temporary shelters. As rescue teams continued searching through the debris for survivors, the homeless emerged from their tents after spending a second night in chilly mountain temperatures. (Luca Bruno / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Most of the village of Onna, Italy, lay in ruins on Tuesday. Forty of the town's 300 residents died in Monday's quake. (Max Rossi / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. A crane lowers a rescue worker looking for survivors inside a building in L'Aquila on Tuesday. (Filippo Monteforte / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Rescuers search the debris of a building in L'Aquila on Tuesday. (Vincenzo Pinto / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A firefighter cries after finding his dead stepdaughter in the rubble of a collapsed building in L'Aquila. (Giampiero Sposito / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Some of the people who were evacuated after the earthquake spent the night in a gym at L'Aquila's recreation center. (Mario Laporta / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Tent cities were set up around the quake zone, including this one in the village of Paganica. (Sandro Perozzi / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A woman, still alive 20 hours after an earthquake, is carried by rescue volunteers in the Abruzzo capital L'aquila, Italy. Rescuers scrambled in the dark to find survivors from the powerful earthquake in central Italy that killed at least 150 people, as thousands of homeless sought shelter in hastily built tent cities. (Giulio Piscitelli / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Rescuers with a sniffer dog search for survivors Monday in the village of Castelnuovo, Italy, one of two dozen communities devastated by the quake. (Alessandra Tarantino / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. People evacuated from their home in L'Aquila protect themselves from the rain with a blanket. The city was the hardest hit, with thousands of buildings torn apart and dozens killed. (Mario Laporta / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. A nun among the homeless joins other evacuees at an outdoor shelter in L'Aquila. (Alessandro Bianchi / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. People line up for food at an outdoor shelter in L'Aquila as darkness approached. (Pier Paolo Cito / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. These are among the thousands of homes destroyed in L'Aquila by the earthquake that left tens of thousands homeless. (Guardia Forestale via AP / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. A child is comforted by a Red Cross rescuer at a camp set up just outside L'Aquila. (Filippo Monteforte / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. The Anime Sante church in L'Aquila was among the historic treasures damaged or destroyed in the quake. (Pier Paolo Cito / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Rescue workers remove an injured woman from her home in the small town of Onna. (Massimiliano Schiazza / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. A car is buried in rubble in the Onna. Most of the town's homes were destroyed, and its residents made homeless. (Massimiliano Schiazza / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi and Guido Bertolaso, the head of Italy's Civil Protection agency, discuss the tragedy at a command center in L'Aquila. (Livio Anticoli / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Residents across central Italy, including these elderly women in L'Aquila, stayed outside Monday, fearing more building collapses. (Grillo / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Two men console one another Monday whlie others prepare to comb debris for potential survivors in L'Aquila. (Pier Paolo Cito / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Rescue workers carry the body of a nun found in the rubble of a collapsed monastery in Paganica, Italy. (Giampiero Sposito / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Residents of L'Aquila comfort one another after the quake destroyed much of the city. (Filippo Monteforte / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. A doctor unpacks a rescue kit next to a collapsed building and buried vehicle in the center of L'Aquila. (Filippo Monteforte / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. A car is seen precariously close to a large hole in a road caused by the earthquake in L'Aquila on Monday. (Peri - Percossi / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Rescue workers carry an injured man away from his house in L'Aquila. (Alessandro Bianchi / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Workers remove debris on Monday in the center L'Aquila. (Vincenzo Pinto / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. Luigi d'Andrea, 20, collects belongings from the debris of an apartment in L'Aquila . (Christophe Simon / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. A police officer stands in the center of L'Aquila on Monday. (Filippo Monteforte / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. A firefighter comforts a colleague near a collapsed building in L'Aquila on Monday. (Alessandro Bianchi / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. Patients are treated outside the St. Salvatore Hospital in L'Aquila. Parts of the hospital were evacuated because it was at risk of collapse, forcing the wounded to be treated in the open air or taken elsewhere. (Gregorio Borgia / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. Blanketed against the morning cold, a couple stand amid rubble in the center of L'Aquila. (Vincenzo Pinto / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments