A Seismic Crime

The devastating earthquake that hit L'Aquila, Italy in 2009 has sparked a court trial and lingering questions about scientific experts' failures to communicate risk to the public. Scientists around the world have rightly spoken out against the trial in Italy, but will we be ready when the next big earthquake strikes?

NEW YORK – Few people outside Italy are aware that six seismologists and a government official are on trial in the small city of L’Aquila. But the story has implications for scientists, engineers, administrators, and legal systems far beyond Italy’s borders.

L’Aquila was largely destroyed by earthquakes in 1461 and 1703. The city was rebuilt, eventually grew to more than 73,000 inhabitants, and remained stable for more than 300 years – until October 2008, when tremors began again. From January 1 through April 5, 2009, 304 additional tremors were reported.

Italy’s National Commission for Prediction and Prevention of Major Risks, which comprised the seven men now on trial, met in L’Aquila for one hour on March 31, 2009, to assess the earthquake swarms. According to the minutes, Enzo Boschi, President of the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology, was asked if they were precursors to an earthquake resembling the one in 1703. He replied: “It is unlikely that an earthquake like the one in 1703 could occur in the short term, but the possibility cannot be totally excluded.”

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