Viewpoint: Scientists on trial in Italy

Dr Dan Faulkner, Senior Lecturer in Rock Mechanics from the School of Environmental Sciences, comments on the trial of six Italian scientists following the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake.

Read the full BBC news story here.

Earthquake prediction is a notoriously tricky business. Often we know the location of seismically-active faults, and hence can predict that earthquakes are more likely in these areas on time periods of tens to hundreds of years. The ‘holy-grail’ of earthquake prediction is to observe some precursory behaviour on much smaller timescales that will allow scientists to give warning of an impending earthquake on timescales of minutes to hours. So far, this has eluded the scientific community entirely.

In light of this, it defies belief that six Italian scientists could be accused of ‘negligence’ with regard to predicting the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake in central Italy. Detailed scientific research has told us that each earthquake displays almost unique characteristics, preceded by foreshocks or small tremors, whereas others occur without warning. There simply are no rules to utilize in order to predict earthquakes.

Earthquake prediction will only become possible with a detailed knowledge of the earthquake process. Even then, it may still be impossible. Our current level of understanding is rudimentary at best. If we are to gain the necessary knowledge it will require a huge scientific effort, and this will not be encouraged prosecuting those who are best placed to make these advances. The Italian authorities may well be shooting themselves in the foot.

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