The Royal Astronomical Society is gravely concerned by the sentencing of scientists accused of providing misleading advice and false reassurances in the days leading up to the April 6th, 2009 earthquake in L'Aquila, Italy. This verdict will seriously compromise the engagement of all scientists in issues of risk, particularly when uncertainties in scientific evidence preclude the type of definitive answer that is often demanded by politicians and the public.
The Society represents geophysicists in the UK, including many engaged in the study of natural hazards such as earthquakes. The characterization and understanding of earthquake hazards provide the underpinning for mitigation of their consequences. Italian geologists and geophysicists have carried out an extensive, and internationally respected, effort to catalogue historical earthquakes, to map active faults, to measure the accumulation of strain, and to identify the distribution of hazard. As a result, it was well known before 2009 that L'Aquila – a city that had been severely damaged by several earthquakes in the past – was one of the areas of Italy exposed to the greatest hazard (1).
Once seismic hazard has been recognized, the essential component in reducing risk is to reduce the vulnerability of buildings to shaking in earthquakes. The collapse of older masonry buildings made of stone and brick was the greatest cause of death in the L'Aquila earthquake. The accused scientists made it clear that strengthening such buildings was the priority in face of the known hazard (2).
The often confusing debate surrounding the trial, however, demonstrates that mitigation activities cannot be truly effective without a sustained programme of education that communicates to the public, to local authorities, and to policy makers the nature of the hazard, the risks to which communities are exposed, and the measures that can be taken to reduce those risks.
The victims of the L'Aquila earthquake, and their families, deserve a thorough investigation of all measures taken before the earthquake. Unfortunately this trial, by focusing blame on, and delivering harsh sentences to, scientists who were required to give advice in an uncertain and volatile situation, has impeded future efforts to overcome the multiple challenges involved in building resilience to earthquakes.
1. Italian Seismic Hazard Map
2. Minutes of the meeting of the Major Risks Commission, 31st March 2009 (note that this text is in Italian). http://speciali.espresso.repubblica.it/pdf/terremoto/verbale.pdf [Alternatively access the file from the RAS website minutes_cgr_310309.pdf]