When in Rome…


I don’t know about the rest of you but I love going and visiting other countries and finding a bit about their history, culture and traditions.  Especially traditions that have been around for hundreds of years, like the Italian tradition of taking Scientists to court.  This noble tradition began with Galileo Galilei when he dared to suggest that actually the sun might be at the centre of the solar system and the earth orbits it.  Thankfully this knave and blaggard was ultimately convicted and put under house arrest till he died……

Putting sarcasm aside I’m sure you are all wondering what I’m blathering on about, so let me explain.  Back in April 2009 there was an earthquake (of magnitude 6.3) that struck the town of L’Aquila in Italy with devastating results, 30% to 50% of the buildings were destroyed or so badly damaged that they would need to be bulldozed, thankfully emergency accomodation was sorted quickly but the area was struck by aftershocks which hampered rescue efforts.  Thankfully the death toll was relatively low at 287 but 1,000 people were injured and 40,000 were made homeless.

F1.largeThe USGS has a record of this earthquake, as it does with all significant ones, which can be found here and on the page you’ll find some of the details above.  The earthquake is the result of the region being seismically active, Italy is on the edge of the Eurasian plate and it is being butted into by the North African plate.  Whilst the region is subjected to tectonic forces that are predominantly compressive in nature the L’Aquila earthquake was caused by a normal or extentional fault, the reason being is that whilst an area might have a predominant tectonic regime it can still have localised areas with contrasting tectonic regimes.  The tectonic setting of the region isn’t straight forward, in fact theres lots of stuff going on.  As i said it’s predominantly compressive because the North African and Eurasian plates are coliding, there is a subduction zone that loops around and is rolling back into the African Oceanic crust (the remains of an ocean) and this rollback has caused the extentional tectonics of Italy, with this being refered to as a back arc extention.

So what does it mean?  Simpley put it means that earthquakes, as opposed to the metaphorical shit, will happen.  Italy and that whole region is earthquake prone, there’s an active fault zone that runs through Turkey and you can use dates of historic quakes and the date of the last known quake to produce a questimate of when and where the next one might happen and make a mildly informed suggestion of how powerful it is.  But with that fault zone it’s only because it’s got known movement of east to west as the build up of strain is released in one earthquake and the pressure is passeda litle further to the west.  It’s likely to one day produce an earthquake powerful enough to flatten Istanbul and block off all access to the black sea.


So the question is what is all the fuss about then?  Well apparently dispite the fact that no geologist has ever said we can predict earthquakes people have been unhappy that there was no prediction or warning that L’Aquila would be effected like this, this is in large part to the fault being unknown to geologists studying the region prior to the quake.  But it is in an active seismic region so it would have at least had a hazard map showing the areas that are likely to be effected by shaking and how much movement might be expected, this should then feed into local building regulations.  However one of the problems in L’Aquila was the age of some buildings (they didn’t have building codes in the middle ages) and buildings put up when codes were not as strong and some buildings going up not being built to code.

But all of this doesn’t help when things like the Journal of Zoology publish articles claiming that toad breeding (in an area tens of km away) is a precurser to earthquakes.  At the very least this is soemthing that has no repeatability so if they’re going to make a claim like this they could at least try to conceed that with only one instance they could be barking up the wrong tree.  Another factor that serves to muddy the waters is people reading an increase in radon gas emmisions, something that has only a tenuous/inconsistant record of predicting earthquakes, and then running around making his prediction in one town when the earthquake happens a week later in a different town with said person claiming he was right.  I am of course refering to Giampaolo Giuliani and his prediction that Sulmona would experience an earthquake 1 week before L’Aquila has hit.  He’s now apparently being taken seriously by the American Geophysical Union, although a lot of people are still of the opinion that he was wrong.  Here are some of the things I’ve found: LAtimes, a Science Blogs blog, LAtimes (again), another blog (with a typo for the town name) and if you go digging on the BBC and Guardian you’ll find similar reports but they’ve all gotten confused and thought it was a warning for L’Aquila itself.

Now I’ll admit that so far that I’ve gone on a bit of a ramble but stay with me a little longer and what looks like a ranble will be clear.  Given all this it’s a little easy to understand that in the upset of the aftermath of the earthquake the people of L’Aquila were also angry, indeed the geologists that went to investigate the area after the quake got a frosty reception.  But there have been some serious repercussions with this.  Predicting earthquakes is very hard to nigh on impossible, at the very best you can look at earthquake patterns and make a general prediction based on prior activity (like with the fault across Turkey as mentioned above).  We are a long way off solid predictions for individual earthquakes, but geologists are trying to find a way to get around this.

Well as it happens the level of upset is high enough that a prosecution for manslaughter is being sought for 6 seismologists and one official as a result of the dismissal of the warnings given.  There is an opinion piece in the Geological Society of Londons monthly Geoscientist about it and whilst I was using the internet to fact check I also found a news article by UC Santa Barbara’s Department of Geogaphy.  One of the first things I found confirming the fact these people were bieng taken to courst was an Open Letter that was one of the external references on the wiki piece on the earthquake and it’s also in Nature.

Now don’t get me wrong, if these people have acted negligently then there should be consequences.  But it needs to be proven that they were being negligent as opposed to going with the best evidence that they had available to them.  The main concern I have with this is whether or not the court room is the best place to determine if scientists were working on the best evidence available at the time.

I also found a very sobering set of pictures showing the distruction that this quakes caused to the people and town of L’Aquila.