A combo picture shows the old tower of Finale Emilia after the first tremor and later, after a strong aftershock caused it to totally collapse. (Photo : Reuters)
Six Italian scientists have been convicted of manslaughter for not providing proper information on a 2009 earthquake that killed 300 people.
An Italian court reached the controversial verdict Monday, saying the scientists were negligent in their duty to keep the residents of L'Aquila informed on the scale of the earthquake, which measured a 6.3 on the Richter Scale, according to the Daily Mail.
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The verdict is front and center in a worldwide argument saying this could discourage other scientists from assisting government officials on assessing future risks.
"At the heart of the case was whether the government-appointed experts gave an overly reassuring picture of the risks facing the town, which contained many ancient and fragile buildings and which had been partially destroyed three times by earthquakes over the centuries," the article said.
The article says more than 5,200 researchers around the world signed a petition supporting the Italian scientists, saying it's sometimes impossible to predict the scale of earthquakes and "no major temblor has ever been foretold."
The Daily Mail said prosecutors in the case claimed the scientists knew of "seismic activity" occurring in the region for months, and one week before the quake, the scientists issued a memo saying it was "improbable" a major quake would take place.
"I don't think there's been any prosecution like this where seismologists have been prosecuted for miscommunicating a risk," said Professor Tom Jordan, a seismologist at the University of Southern California to the Washington Post." It's a very tricky business. In this particular case, it's very clear that the Italian system of communicating risk was flawed. Nature is fairly perverse when it comes to earthquake predictions."
Jordan said earthquakes happen all the time and they seem to all start the same way, but most of them just start and stop.
"Occasionally, one will start and then rupture a big fault that causes a big earthquake," he said.
Jordan said scientists are concerned this prosecution will have "a chilling effect" on scientists' willingness to tell what they know or don't know about hazard to the public.
"One of our recommendations to improve the system is to make sure we communicate in appropriate terms. And these have to be in terms of probability."
He said scientists can't answer the question of will there be a big earthquake or will there be a small earthquake.
"Scientists in L'Aquila got trapped trying to answer that question," he said.