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Predictably Unpredictable Earthquakes Require Compassion, Not Conviction

Like many scientists, I am aghast at an Italian court's conviction of geoscientists on criminal charges for their judgements made about seismic risks prior to a 6.3 magnitude earthquake that descimated the L'Auqila, capital of the Abruzzo region, and killed more than 300 people in 2009. A crowd on Monday watching the trial of seven earthquake experts in L'Aquila. (Filippo Monteforte/Agence France-Presse - Getty Images)
 
Anyone who lives there knows that L'Aquila lies in a tremendously seismically active area of Italy.  In fact, Italy is one of the most earthquake-prone regions of the world-- dozens of earthquakes occur every day there though many are low magnitude and not felt by human beings. But sizeable seismicity is recent history: a 6.9-magnitude earthquake struck Eboli, south of Naples, in 1980, killing more than 2,700 people and another major quake struck the Molise region in 2002, killing 28 people, including 27 children who died when a school collapsed.
 
As journalist Stephen Hall reported in a feature article for Nature, L'Aquila was devastated by earthquakes in 1461 and in 1703; he quotes British travel writer Augustus Hare in 1883 on the seismic reputation of the place: "Its rocks, its soil, its churches, are riven and rifted by constant earthquakes, for even now nature suddenly often sets all the bells ringing and the clocks striking, and makes fresh chasms in the old yellow walls."
 
My heart aches for those beings that lost their lives in the L'Aqulia quake of 2009. But why blame scientists for a natural event and its consequent unnatural disaster just because human beings live in harm's way?   This seismic event and the unjust conviction of scientists trying to understand an always and yet increasingly unpredictable Earth remind me of words attributed to historian Will Durant, “civilization exists by geological consent subject to change without notice.” 
 
Geologists cannot predict with exactitude when an earthquake will occur. We can get some notion of how often seismically-induced motion will occur on a particular fault because we can check the timing of previous jolts along the fault. But really this allows us only to forecast, in decades-wide windows, the inevitability of such events.  
 
When we examine a geologic map of the world, an unfortunate reality becomes clear: the most populous cities on Earth exist along plate boundaries. Plate boundaries are typical sites of seismicity AND since they frequently coincide with shorelines and sources of water our earliest civilizations arose and grew there.  Rather than focus on retrospective blame for today's unnatural disasters, especially in light of inevitable yet unpredicatble seismicity in poorly constructed megacities, society as a whole must accept the fact that geoscientists will never be able to predict these types of events with temporal accuracy enough to save lives.
 
We would do better to focus on the fact that today large population centers in places like Tehran and Istanbul are disasters waiting to happen. As we saw in the 2010 Port-au-Prince quake, haphazardly constructed communities in vulnerable mega-cities put millions of people at risk for the suffering that ensues after a large earthquake in a poorly prepared region. The answer to the problem lies not in the impossible prediction of the timing of earthquakes. Rather it requires that existing buildings be reinforced and that new construction be done such that buildings don't collapse when the ground shakes.
 
Rather than punish the geoscientists in Italy who did what they could given the predicatable unpredictability of earthquakes, the Italian government should bear responsibility for not taking steps to secure buildings in this seismically active area. And in terms of the future, may we recognize that the Earth is a dynamic planet. As a planetary community, we must find ways for all human beings to live in tune with the movements of Earth.