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AP via AAP/Pier Paolo Cito

AP via AAP/Pier Paolo Cito

By Valentina Koschatzky and Katharine Haynes

The conviction of Italian scientists at the centre of the tragic L’Aquila earthquake was not an attack on the sanctity of science.

In a landmark case that concluded in late October 2012, six scientists and a government official associated with the Italian National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks were found guilty of multiple counts of manslaughter. The trial followed a magnitude 6.3 earthquake near the Italian city of L’Aquila that killed 309 people in April 2009.

Those convicted were Franco Barberi, volcanologist and then-Vice-President of the Commission; Enzo Boschi, the country’s most prominent geophysicist and then-President of the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV); Gian Michele Calvi, seismic engineer and President of the European Centre for Training and Research in Earthquake Engineering; seismologist Claudio Eva; Bernardo de Bernardinis, hydraulic engineer and then-Deputy Head of Italy’s Civil Protection Department; seismic engineer Mauro Dolce; and Giulio Selvaggi, seismologist at INGV and, until June 2012, Director of the National Earthquake Centre.

Their alleged crime was not a failure to predict the earthquake, but rather one of failing to adequately communicate the level of risk.

For the most part, the world’s media and representatives of various scientific bodies have seen this trial and verdict as a scurrilous attack on the reputations of selfless and hardworking scientists, and on the sanctity of science itself. This is untrue.


The Commission, an expert panel of the Italian Protezione Civile, met in L’Aquila on 31 March 2009, the day after a 4.1 magnitude foreshock caused damage to some buildings. The meeting was followed by a press conference that, according to the prosecution, failed to appropriately convey the level of risk to the local population, and, in so doing, dissuaded citizens from taking precautions that might otherwise have saved lives. It had been common for many to sleep outside of their homes in cars or in the piazza during periods of high earthquake activity during the earthquake swarm.

The meeting and press conference took place in a climate of nervousness due to the increasing frequency and intensity of earthquake tremors that had been affecting the area since the previous December. This tension was heighted by the predictions of Gioacchino Giuliani, a non-seismologist who had interpreted that an increase in radon gas emissions indicated an imminent large earthquake 50 km from L’Aquila. Most seismologists distrust radon emissions as a predictor of earthquakes.

On 31 March, Giuliani was reported to the police for causing unjustified alarm, leading him to stop making public pronouncements. Less than a week later came the main shock, the collapse of many old non-reinforced masonry and some newer buildings, the destruction of the centre of L’Aquila and 309 deaths in city and surrounding villages.

The Sentence

The accused were convicted of having provided “inaccurate, incomplete and contradictory information” about the dangers of the ongoing seismic activity, and therefore undermining the safety of the population.

Following testimony from the victims’ relatives, the judge agreed with the prosecution that there was a causal link between the conduct of the convicted and the decision of some victims to stay inside homes that later collapsed. Specifically, the judge recognised a direct link for 29 deaths and four other injured people.

Among the testimonies was that of Maurizio Cora, a lawyer who lost his wife and two daughters: “We received the news [dismissing the risk] from the Major Risks Commission like manna from heaven,” he said. Concerned about the constant earthquakes, on 30 March he had made his daughter sleep outside even though she had a high fever, but the family slept inside on the night of 5 April following the press conference held after the meeting of the Commission. Although his daughter was then well, he felt reassured by the scientists and thought evacuation was no longer necessary.

What Went Wrong?

According to a Protezione Civile press release issued on 30 March 2009, the meeting of the Commission was officially held to “provide the citizens of Abruzzo all the information available to the scientific community on the seismic activity of the last few weeks”. During the trial, however, it emerged from phone taps of conversations between some of the protagonists that the meeting had instead been called to allay fears of the public stirred up by the predictions of Giuliani.

When Enzo Boschi was questioned by the judge as to why he did not argue against the narrow purpose of the meeting, he replied: “For me, the head of the situation is the head of the Protezione Civile, and if he asks me to say this and that, I will say it”.

No Galileo Here!

In a draft version of the minutes, the Protezione Civile local councillor, Daniela Stati, concluded the meeting by thanking the Commission members “for your statements that allow me to reassure the population through the media which we will meet at the press conference.” (This statement was not included in the official minutes of the meeting that were only released after the 6 April earthquake.) What this means is that the scientists were well aware that the information they had provided was to be used to play down the risk.

Under pressure from the Protezione Civile (and therefore indirectly the government) to produce reassuring and placatory statements, the Commission appears to have allowed itself to provide an analysis that the public prosecutor, Fabio Picuti, argued was “deficient, unsuitable, inadequate and culpably deceptive.”

“Reading the minutes of the meeting,” Picuti said, “we find a series of trivial, self-contradictory, useless and misleading statements.”

Trivial, Self-Contradictory and Useless?

First, consider the following statement by Barberi: “Tremors within a swarm tend to have the same magnitude, and it is very unlikely that in the same swarm the magnitude will increase”. At the time of the meeting, though, the magnitude of the tremors had already significantly increased yet no consideration was given to this fact.

On different occasions during the meeting, both Boschi and Barberi claimed that a seismic swarm is not a precursor to a large event. This is mostly the case, but not always. Most swarms end the way they begin – with a whimper – but some do not and thus the probability of having larger earthquakes during a swarm is increased.

In a scientific article published in 1995, Boschi forecast with probability 1 – therefore with absolute certainty – an earthquake in the area with magnitude 5.9 in the following 20 years. This information was not tabled at the meeting; rather, the occurrence of strong earthquakes was dismissed as “unlikely”.

According to the draft minutes and in contradiction to his own published work and that of the INGV, Boschi stated: “The return intervals are in the order of 2–3000 years, with some degree of uncertainty. Strong earthquakes have, in Abruzzo, extremely long return intervals. It is therefore unlikely that a strong earthquake such as the one of 1703 will happen in the short run, even if it is not possible to categorically exclude the possibility.”

Before the meeting, de Bernardinis repeated in an interview what Guido Bertolaso, the then-Head of the Protezione Civile and de Bernardinis superior, had previously stated: that “the scientific community tells me there is no danger because there is an ongoing discharge of energy. The situation looks favourable.”

When prompted by a journalist who suggested, “So we should have a nice glass of wine,” De Bernardinis famously replied, “Absolutely”, and urged locals to have a glass of Montepulciano.

The idea that low magnitude tremors can discharge enough energy from a fault to prevent the occurrence of a devastating earthquake is just plain wrong. The energy released by such small tremors is insignificant compared to the energy released in a strong earthquake. The Commission’s seismological experts effectively sanctioned this statement by neither refuting it during the meeting nor after it was broadcast on local television.

Finally, Calvi stated: “The measurements show high peak accelerations but with spectral displacements very small – a few millimetres. They are unlikely to create damage to the structures. We can therefore expect damage only to fragile structures sensitive to accelerations.”

This statement referred to the ongoing earthquake swarm and assumes that a larger earthquake was unlikely.

Bad Buildings Kill People, Not Earthquakes!

Whatever the responsibilities of the convicted men, this should not divert our attention from the fact that the Abruzzo region, and Italy in general, is highly vulnerable to seismic ground motions by virtue of its old building stock and little mitigation actions by government.

The death of 26 children in the collapse of a primary school in San Giuliano di Puglia, during the 2002 Molise earthquake, convinced the government of the need to undertake a seismic reclassification of buildings and infrastructure. In the L’Aquila trial, Bertolaso claimed that “the regions were asked to complete studies on the vulnerability of buildings and infrastructure, but these were never completed ... not only because of the lack of funds, but also because of the lack of will. In short, there is a total lack of investment in damage-reduction measures.”

Many of the houses that collapsed had already been identified as vulnerable to seismic shaking by members of the Committee. In fact, a study by Barberi in 1996–97, and a more recent one performed by Abruzzo Engineering in 2006, clearly identified the vulnerable buildings but no action was taken. Dolce and Eva also participated in the Barberi study.

Moreover, since 2006 the regions are supposed to employ a seismic risk map provided by INGV, and to update the building code class requirements in each municipality. However, the revision is not compulsory and in L’Aquila, which the seismic map indicates is in one of Italy’s most seismically active spots, new buildings, even today, do not need to comply with the stricter requirements.

Finally, as pointed out by INVG in a release note about seismic risk and building vulnerability, professional misconduct and fraud from builders is common practice. This behaviour is sanctioned by the government through its habit of raising funds during regular amnesties for the infringement of building regulations.

Risk Communication

The real “crime” appears to be one of poor risk communication and, presumably in the view of the judge, deliberate obscuration. Risk communication is about providing the public with what they need to minimise injury, loss of life and damage to property. Mostly risk communication, even when well executed, is only partially successful at best. The usual outcome is a public that, despite warnings and for any number of reasons, does not undertake protective behaviour.

Nevertheless, despite the complexity of motivating behavioural change, the public deserves correct and objective information. And in the case of L’Aquila, the scientists failed to provide it.

This case is not without precedent. On 25 June 1997, a major dome collapse of the Soufrière Hills Volcano on the Caribbean Island of Montserrat killed 19 people within a designated exclusion zone. Prior to the eruption, the scientists at the Montserrat Volcano Observatory had been pressured by the authorities of Montserrat to provide the information they wanted to hear.

At the inquest into these deaths, the advice provided by the scientists involved with the monitoring and risk assessment of the volcano was scrutinised. It was questioned whether the Montserrat Volcano Observatory had adequately alerted the public to the changing conditions at the volcano. In the end the jury did not implicate the scientists in the deaths and the scientific advice they provided was not challenged.

The scientists on Montserrat, like the Major Risk Commission, had come under great pressure to bend their science to the social and political needs of the island. However, unlike the scientists on trial in Italy, they resisted.

Implications for Scientists and Disaster Modellers

When this article went to print the reasoning behind the judge’s verdict was not known – under the Italian legal system the judge has 3 months to prepare a statement explaining his decision. We must also wait for more disclosures from ongoing trials related to misconduct, fraud and corruption. These other trials involve some of the same protagonists.

Until then, the guilty verdict should serve as a reminder to scientists of the standard of care they must provide in the execution of their duties.

It seems clear that the Commission’s thinking and discussion at the meeting was focused towards the low likelihood of a strong earthquake without any discussion about what would have happened if it did occur. This was the most likely outcome but surely some consideration should have been made of the worse-case scenario. This is poor process.

The outcome of this trial is likely to have ramifications for risk communication. A need for separation between the roles of scientists and authorities responsible for civil protection is strikingly clear. Scientists need to be independent and provide scientifically grounded risk assessments that are not influenced by the needs of an administrator. During times of high stress and uncertainty, roles can often become blurred as government officials find it difficult to make unpopular decisions and may wish to transfer their responsibilities onto the scientists.

To avoid this outcome, scientists must have clear, peer-reviewed protocols in place to conduct and communicate their risk assessments. This will ensure that, despite what the administrators and public might do with those messages, their communications cannot be challenged in a court of law.

Valentina Koschatzky and Katharine Haynes are with Risk Frontiers at Macquarie University,and acknowledges the assistance of Paul Somerville, John McAneney and Delphine McAneney.