Ibsen’s (1882) play pitted an idealistic hero (medical officer) against an entire community headed up by the doctor’s brother (Mayor) determined to defend its vested interests in the local baths regardless of its level of contamination. During a public debate the doctor calling for closure of the contaminated baths until sanitary conditions were attained was denounced as an enemy of the people. The debate focused on the issue of conscience and integrity versus opportunism.
Earthquakes and volcanoes are no strangers to Italy. On 31 March 2009 a group of seven people consisting of scientists, engineers, and a government official met in the town of L’Aquila to discuss and assess seismic tremors occurring there. Before the meeting the government official opined that ongoing tremors posed no danger and that the scientific community deemed conditions favorable because the tremors helped discharge energy. Six days later on 6 April a 6.3 earthquake struck L’Aquila killing 309 people.
Subsequently the seven were accused of having performed only a superficial analysis of seismic risk and providing false reassurances to the public ahead of the quake.
The prosecution alleged that the information provided by the experts led many people to stay indoors in the early hours of 2009. Further the prosecutor argued that the defense failed to distinguish between a natural disaster and the risk of such a disaster.
While the prosecutor acknowledged that it isn’t possible to predict earthquakes, he stated that its risk can be predicted. The first part of the prosecutor’s statement is universally held by geologists and seismologists and the second part is problematical.
The L’Aquila Judge handed down manslaughter sentences of six years to each of the seven experts involved in the pre-quake meeting. Clearly the judge’s sense of justice marked the L’Aquila Seven as enemies of the people. The response of the scientific community was immediate. A significant number of resignations from advisory committees were submitted temporarily leaving them in a state of flux. Thousands of scientists submitted petitions and letters protesting the judge’s decision. Of more than passing interest two unsolicited statements from earth scientists abroad accurately defined an emerging problem.
It’s incredible that scientists performing their job under the direction of a government agency have been convicted for criminal manslaughter. This verdict will not help those trying to improve risk communication between scientists and the public.
An even more emphatic statement affirmed: If the verdict stands it will have a chilling effect on earthquake science in Italy and throughout Europe. Who would now be willing to serve on an earthquake hazard evaluation panel when getting it wrong could mean a conviction? Who indeed?
A pair of earthquakes earlier (2012) in the north of Italy provide a case in point regarding the possibility of a third quake, leading a government agency to take emergency measures. When the quake failed to materialize, the mayor of a town threatened to sue the agency because the measures hampered local business. Shades of Ibsen.
Predicting earthquakes for L’Aquila is not a unique or isolated case. Earlier in China 4 February 1975 a 7.5 earthquake occurred in Lianoning Province. Few deaths were reported. The Chinese claimed they’d accurately predicted the quake evacuating a million people from a designated epicenter. Though there has been some reassessment of the claim concerning fatalities, evacuating a million people is no mean feat. Daily commuter traffic in Los Angeles or New York would suggest what a challenge evacuation would be there.
One year later 1976 at least 240,000 died in the Tangshan China 7.6 earthquake which was not predicted. Who’s the enemy of the people here? The Chinese have also issued false alarms in a province near Hong Kong. People reportedly left their dwellings and presumably their jobs for over a month but no earthquake occurred.
On 20 March 1980 a series of minor tremors were recorded on Mt. St. Helen’s Washington. A week later ash and steam were extruded from the summit. From 18 May to the 20th seismic activity declined only to be abruptly accelerated by a volcanic eruption on 20 May 1980. Dozens of scientists were monitoring the situation when one reported:
“Vancouver, Vancouver, this is it.” These were the last words of the scientist.
Sixty people died from the eruption and associated mudflows. With all the attention on the developing volcanic activity, even with data obtained with the very best technology, scientists were unable to provide an unequivocal prediction. According to the L’Aquila verdict these scientists should be held accountable for not providing necessary information to mitigate any risk.
In northwestern United States there are a number of extant volcanoes that are most likely to erupt according to earth scientists. Encroachment on the slopes of these volcanoes continues apace with population growth. If Mt. Rainier in Washington experienced an eruption, how many fatalities would occur? There are state and federal agencies monitoring these volcanoes, but who would be the enemy of the people communicating costly false alarms versus actual eruptions? Some predictions are best or educated guesses. Can we realistically expect scientists to provide estimates or predictions of natural processes facing criminal indictments with false alarms or honest errors?
Perhaps a movie may summarize this portion of the account. In Dante’s Peak two experienced senior geologists disagree on the potential of a volcanic eruption in a small tourist town in Washington. One interprets the seismic records as a swarm of relatively harmless tremors, concluding that evacuation from the town would be unnecessary threatening the local economy. The other is just as firmly convinced the records indicate an imminent and violent eruption and that the town should be evacuated immediately. For plot and dramatic purposes the latter position prevailed. Ibsen’s enemy of the people rides again.
While predicting earthquake and volcanic eruptions may be more provincial, a broader and more generic net encompasses weather forecasts. Prompted by Hurricane Sandy an article on weather forecasting was presented in Science 9 November 2012. Based on billions of weather observations for thirty years the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) is presently considered the most accurate of medium-range forecasts.
Although official forecasts from the National Hurricane Center (NHC) were better than ever, the European Model was 7 to 8 days ahead, and even at 5 days out the European Model had Sandy turning NW towards the New Jersey shore, its eventual landfall. Most other models showed the storm bearing N or NE moving harmlessly out to sea. Initially the NHC didn’t issue a hurricane warning to the northeast coast. If the NHC had excluded the European Model from consideration, they would’ve missed land fall and the level of intensity of Sandy. It is legitimate to ask how many more deaths attributable to Sandy (100) would’ve occurred, if the NHC had not included the European Model in their analyses. The L’Aquila judge might have sentenced the entire NHC staff for criminal negligence.
The same article briefly discussed forecasting tornadoes New technology (Doppler Radar) has enabled forecasters to extend average tornado warning times from three minutes to thirteen minutes. While we should be grateful for the increased warning time for seeking shelter, thirteen minutes may be insufficient for many situations. Even with this increased warning time, the number of false alarms (tornadoes that never appeared) is between 75-80%. Seventy-five to eighty percent of super cells don’t make a tornado. There are special conditions between super cells that still elude forecasters. Meanwhile every false alarm erodes the credibility of the forecasts increasing vulnerability among the public.
If upon appeal the L’Aquila verdict and sentences are upheld, this would significantly reduce advisers and consultants participating and volunteering their expertise to country governmental agencies in particular Italy. Accordingly it would be difficult to assemble a group of external experts on a variety of topics and processes to aid governmental agencies for fear of conviction from a false alarm or honest error. Whether this would become an accepted legal practice in the United States is questionable.
Scientists have made mistakes, are making mistakes, and will make mistakes in the future with predictions of natural processes. While highly confident that a lead ball rolling off a table will drop to the floor due to gravity, scientists can only provide the probability of a certain magnitude for earthquakes on a time scale of 30 to 100 years; for weather forecasts 5 to 7 days; and tornadoes 3 – 15 minutes. The appeal process for the L’Aquila Seven will be of general interest for scientists the world over. Hopefully the men and women providing scientific expertise on a variety of topics (medicine, weather, earthquakes …) will not be branded as enemies of the people.