On Earthquakes and Risks

Seven people, six of them scientist, were convicted of manslaughter yesterday and sentenced to six years in prison after over 300 people died in a 2009 earthquake in the Italian town of L’Aquila . They had been put on trial for not calculating correctly the risk of an earthquake, and over reassuring the population that a devastating quake was unlikely. Although their lawyer has said that they will appeal against the sentence, this conviction came as a surprise to the scientific community that rallied behind the accused scientists. Let’s review the chain of events.

Earthquake Swarms and Destructive Earthquakes.

Seismic activity along the Apennine mountains is very common. The quakes tend to be mild and only felt in a 20-30 km radius from the epicenter, but they can cause damage to ancient stone buildings, and every 10-20 years, a town along the Apennines is damaged.

L’Aquila is one of such towns. It was severely hit by earthquakes in 1461 and 1703, and the historic buildings had had several reconstructions after the last quakes that caused damage. Yet, the construction style and materials had been kept, making it a picturesque medieval town. In the outskirts, modern buildings have been built during the last few decades.

L’Aquila city center

In October 2008, small tremors started being felt. They didn’t cause damage, but their frequency were making people nervous. By early 2009, the quakes were more frequent and stronger. This kind of tremors are called “earthquake swarms”, and are not uncommon in the region. They tend to disappear after a while without a major seismic event. Throughout these months, the Italian Civil Protection Department was present in the town, making plans in case of an emergency, and reassuring the population that the possibility of a destructive event was quite remote. Yet, there were people saying that a major earthquake was due any day.

In April, a stronger earthquake was felt. It didn’t cause much damage, but experts from the Major Risks Commission (National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks) were called in. The Commission, who’s mission is to assess the risks of natural disasters, convened for a few hours in L’Aquila, reviewed the data, and concluded that, although a major event could not be discarded, there were no signs of imminent danger. These conclusions were transmitted to the public, with an emphasis on the reassurances, and they were told to go back home to sleep and go on with their lives.

In the early hours of the next day, there was a 6.3 magnitude earthquake with an epicenter a few kilometers away. 315 people died, 1,500 were injured, and about 65,000 people were evacuated from their homes. Or what was left of them. People were afraid, shocked, outraged, and they felt betrayed by the authorities. The people who had predicted a major earthquake started to gain notoriety, specially a retired technician of the Geologic Observatory who was measuring radon emission with home-made detectors, following the footsteps of a group of researchers who believe that anomalies in radon gas emissions during earthquake swarms are followed by major earthquakes. He had posted online that a major earthquake was due any day. Some of the town’s elders had also been saying that a medium magnitude earthquake, according to ancient wisdom, had to be followed by a major event.

After the Quake

Soon after the terrible quake, some citizens filed criminal and civil lawsuits against the people responsible of how the emergency was handled. The six scientists plus the government official leading the Major Risks Commissions were accused of negligence, and of making a confusing and incomplete evaluation of the risks to the population. The Attorney General decided there were enough grounds to try them for manslaughter.

This is probably the first time a group of specialists has faced a trial for failing to detect the imminence of a natural event and giving the appropriate warning. The scientific community massively rallied behind the accused scientists. A letter of support, highlighting the fact that there is no reliable method of predicting the place and time of an earthquake, was signed by over 5,000 experts from around the world. The general feeling was of injustice, but most of the scientific community thought that they would not be convicted.

Seismic Activity in the Region and the Buildings in L’Aquila

Before talking about who was or wasn’t responsible for the loss of life, there are a few things we need to take into consideration:

  • Some 20 years ago, L’Aquila was classified as a high seismic risk region, so very strict construction regulations were put in place. These construction regulations not only applied to new buildings, but also demanded that older buildings had to be checked and reinforced if necessary. A building reinforcement program for old and historic buildings had been approved and was awaiting funding.
  • The damaged and collapsed buildings were not all historic buildings. Some of them had been built well after the strict construction regulations were put in place. The assessments that took place after the event have shown that many of these buildings did not conform to regulation and even had poor construction quality. Some of the old buildings rehabilitated after the regulation were even made more vulnerable because of the modernization.
  • The Civil Protection Deparment had identified 550 buildings particularly vulnerable to damage by earthquake 10 years ago. No special precautions to reinforce, protect, or evacuate these buildings were taken.
  • Considering that Civil Protection had ordered the evacuation of several buildings twice before, they feared that another false alarm might make more difficult an evacuation if more clear evidence of danger were to be detected.
  • A study of earthquake swarms had shown that only in 2% of the cases, a medium intensity earthquake was followed by a destructive one. In the rest of the cases, either the swarms had gradually disappeared or a destructive quake was felt without a previous medium intensity quake.


Given all this, it seems like both the Major Risks Commission recommendations, and the decision by the authorities not to evacuate were the right ones under the circumstances.

Seismic Forecasts and Prevention of Seismic Disasters

There is an almost unanimous opinion among specialists that, currently, there are no reliable methods of forecasting the time, place or magnitude of an earthquake. There is research being done on different prediction techniques and it is possible that some types of earthquakes will be able to be forecasted in the not too distant future. But, at the moment, none of those techniques has yielded consistent results, including the measurement of anomalies in radon gas emissions.

Seismologists have been concentrating their efforts in estimating the characteristics of the earthquakes likely to hit a given place. Based on catalogs of historic quakes and the geologic evidence of great movements in prehistoric times, the probability of events at a given distance or of a given magnitude that can cause damage can be calculated. This way, the level of Seismic Hazard of a place is determined and the level of resistance that its buildings should have in order to have a very low probability of being damaged by the most severe event that could be expected. Every country in the world exposed to significant seismic activity has made zoning maps according to seismic risks, and determined construction regulations according to the assigned hazard of the area.

From this it can be concluded that protecting people and their property against seismic threats is essentially based on how safe are the buildings they live in and the objects they interact with in case of the most severe seismic events that can happen. This level of safety depends on the quality of construction regulations and how rigorously they are applied. It’s very common in the inspection of buildings damaged by earthquakes to find grave errors and omissions in following construction regulations and good practices.

In very specific cases, it is possible to install an alarm to alert the population that a strong earthquake is imminent. This system is not based on the prediction of the quake, but on the detection of seismic movements in places very near their origin (the epicenter) followed by an analysis of the signal to estimate the magnitude of the event. When the magnitude calls for it, a signal is sent to places farther away. This system would not be of much use in L’Aquila and nearby towns since they are located only a few kilometers away from the epicenter. The signal would not reach them before the beginning of the earthquake.

On responsibilities


  • Builders and developers who did not conform constructions to the regulations and best practices are clearly responsible for building and selling insecure housing. Those owners who renovated without introducing the seismic security improvements required by law are also at fault.
  • The regional and city authorities are responsible for not prioritizing the rehabilitation of buildings that had been marked as very vulnerable, but mostly for not making sure new buildings were being constructed according to seismic regulations.
  • Civil Protection authorities overly minimized the risk the city was in, which led the local authorities, and even the population, to not take precautions. Also, since the earthquake swarm was so persistent, they should have ordered an evacuation or the bracing of vulnerable buildings.
  • The members of the scientific committee cannot be blamed for not ordering an evacuation, but they should have expressed their opinion in a formal document, where they could clearly communicate the risks and vulnerabilities of the city. Since they knew how vulnerable some of the buildings were, they should have recommended some precautions to the authorities.
    Giulio Selvaggi, director of the National Center for Earthquakes, is one of the convicted scientists
  • This being a seismic region, the population should have paid more attention to the risk their buildings were in. But given that there hadn’t been a destructive earthquake in over 300 years, their apathy is understandable.
    What Has Been Done in the Aftermath

    The response immediately after the disaster (rescue, medical attention, evacuation and relocation) was well executed. Some people are still living in the temporary housing.

    The reconstruction and rehabilitation, although well funded, is painfully slow. The general criteria for risk mitigation established for the reconstruction are very sound, but there are still some decisions to be made in regards to urban planning and the preservation of cultural heritage. Part of what makes the process slow is the controls that were set to prevent poor quality construction. There has also been conflict between central and local authorities, and the population growing tired of the situation.

    Scientists and specialists are working hard at studying the risks and planning the reconstruction work, but hardly ever talk to the press and are careful not to make their opinions or activities public.

    A problem that has not been talked about much is what will happen to other places which face similar risks. There are thousands of towns in high seismic risk regions with similar risk conditions. These are not subject to the new regulations and would suffer grave damages in an earthquake. On the other hand, there are no resources to intervene in all of them and the probability of a destructive event is very low. Taking L’Aquila as a representative case, a rough estimate of the probability of risk can be made for the rest of the towns.

    There have been destructive earthquakes in L’Aquila in 1461, 1703 and 2009. Almost 300 years in between destructive events. From this, rather unsettling and complicated ethical decisions have to be made. Is the population of these towns willing to put up with the inconvenience and costs of large scale city rehabilitation? The answer is probably yes, as long as most of the costs are covered by the central government. But what would the population in other regions say to paying a bill 10 times higher in the next couple of decades to rehabilitate the whole region? The answer might not be as positive.

    Final Comment
    The conviction of the members of the Major Risks Commission is a great injustice that will cause a drastic change in the willingness of scientists to advice authorities in cases of risk. The authorities love to say their decisions are backed by well-respected scientists, and many of them have been willing to do it because of the satisfaction and prestige that comes with positive results. From now on, they will be much more careful.

    Note: This post is a slightly shorter version of a post that will be published tomorrow at Escéptica in Spanish. The information in it comes from an expert in the field.

    Note 2: Just to be clear, this post is based on the opinions and knowledge of an expert in the area, who kindly collaborated with Esceptica/Skepchick to make this post possible.

Featured image is from here.


Born and raised in Mexico City, Daniela has finally decided to abdicate her post as an armchair skeptic and start doing some skeptical activism. She is currently living in Spain after having lived in the US, Brazil and Italy. You can also find her blogging in Spanish at

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  1. I doubt that earthquake risk would have motivated people to move, and evacuations are not realistic anyway. Can you really outrun an earthquake? If the buildings weren’t up to code, it’s really the builders who should be on trial.

    All I can say is good luck to Italy. Any scientists who are unfortunate enough to stay will probably get out of the forecasting / predictions business. That should be interesting for residents looking to stay safe in the future.

    1. Actually, evacuations can work. In places where seismic alarms are in place, the alarm goes off* a minute before the earthquakes gets there. That minute is crucial for evacuating schools, for getting to safer places, for hospital safety, etc.
      *not always, it depends on the magnitude, epicenter, etc.

      The problem with evacuating whole cities or towns for non immediate, non certain events, is that you run the risk of evacuating too soon or too often and people stop listening.

      1. One of the best examples of adequate warnings provided by geologists is with volcanic eruptions. My local active volcano Mt St, Helens was known to be entering a very active stage and a large area around the mountain was evacuated and closed off which saved many hundreds of lives. In Italy it’s not hard to imagine that evidence may become known that will cause the Italian government to consider the evacuation of Naples and the area around their volcano which would mean more than a million people. Earthquakes seem to be a much more difficult event to predict however.

      2. Yes, but that is dependent on there being some sort of safe building in that region. How many are there? Where are they located relative to that region?

          1. Not necessarily. You can exit a building and head to an open area. Even if that is not possible, you can do simple things to improve your chances, like getting away from windows, standing by door frames, getting under a desk, go to a patio, etc. At least that’s what we are taught since childhood in Mexico City.

            EDIT: in case of an earthquake, always follow the safety recommendations for your country or region. What I said in the paragraph above does not apply for many places and situations.

      3. @Daniela running outside and standing in door frames is incorrect. From NOAA:

        •Do not use a doorway except if you know it is a strongly supported, load-bearing doorway and it is close to you. Many inside doorways are lightly constructed and do not offer protection..

        •Stay inside until the shaking stops and it is safe to go outside. Do not exit a building during the shaking. Research has shown that most injuries occur when people inside buildings attempt to move to a different location inside the building or try to leave

          1. You are not supposed to go out during an earthquake, but it is recommended to exit buildings and houses and go to open areas when there is an alarm system in place, and you are able to evacuate the premises in the 1-2 minutes of warning the alarm allows you to have, which is what Daniela was talking about.

        1. Imprecise, not incorrect: “Do not use a doorway except if you know it is a strongly supported, load-bearing doorway(…)”.

          But I guess I did speak too lightly since I wasn’t trying to give safety advice. My point was that there are ways to increase safety that are not dependent on there being shelters or safe buildings around.

          1. @Daniela Yes, wrong choice of words on my part. Sorry (having a grumpy week, multiple bad stuff going on). We’ve looked up tornado safety and there’s as many contradictory “professional” opinions as there are scenarios. Quite complicated in the end.

  2. What, someone thought Italian jurisprudence was rational and gave weight to reasonable evidence over conjecture and speculation? My brother-in-law’s company manufactures and maintains the monitoring instruments that are placed around a number of Italian Hill Towns and Cities as well as Tower of Pizza. I now wonder if an earthquake does damage to one of those places will he be at risk of criminal prosecution for not giving adequate warning? Sadly he may.

    And what a great article Daniela!

  3. @Lucy could you please provide a link and elaborate on that? Being outside does not necessarily protect someone from falling objects. Do you mean if they can get to a shelter?

  4. The wrong parties were held culpable. Victims should have pursued: 1) the civic authorities for inadequate preparations; 2) those who permitted inadequate or uncorrected structures in the earthquake zone; and 3) the Vatican (for its failure to relay an infallible message).

    And when Mexico City gets slammed, let’s get the Italian courts to take on that liar who prophesied that the Aztecs (Mexica) would/should build in the middle of a lake full of mud (a swamp would have been a better bet.) Have you seen the Templo Mayor? The first pyramid is doing a muck dive, and is tipped 90 degrees.

    Me, I’ve lived almost everywhere along the “ring of fire,” and I’m prepared for most everything except the people who aren’t prepared.

  5. I agree with everything, but:
    what if there is evidence that the scientists acted under the bias of politics? I mean, assume (as it seems almost evident from some wiretaps) that the Head of CP really asked the scientists to produce no report, no press conference, no communication, and just say few reassuring words, precisely for the (political) purpose of keeping the population quiet or whatsoever? If you are scientist, and you are asked for a consultancy in a potential situation of risk for people’s lives, and there is something out of your scientific expertise which biases your response, or even the way you communicate that response, then this probably deserves 6 years of jail. Because it is intentional. The fact that the minutes of the meeting agree with a worldwide accepted scientific truth becomes irrelevant in that case, because you are not fulfilling your duty of providing a scientific contribution at the best of your expertise and knowledge. And you become partner of CP in all of their responsibilities you listed above.

  6. “This is probably the first time a group of specialists has faced a trial for failing to detect the imminence of a natural event and giving the appropriate warning.”

    Not exactly. A bunch of engineers in charge of the Wyvenhoe dam were put on trial after the Queensland floods a couple of years ago.

    They had allowed the dam to overfill during the previous drought (water supply function) causing insufficient space to be left for flood mitigation – the primary purpose of the dam.

    When La Nina hit and the drought broke, they needed to release water fast to prevent a break, thus increasing the flood levels downstream.

    Thankfully, all were acquitted and protocols were rewritten.

    But again, who can predict the weather?? How far will we go to find a scapegoat? Above all, who allows all the rebuilding in massively floodprone areas? How culpable are insurance companies who take your premium then refuse to pay out when you are flooded? How many loopholes can be put into a flood insurance policy?

    One good outcome was the govt did crack down on the latter bunch of bastards.

  7. As – indeed – with most disasters there is no single cause, so it goes for this one. That however scientists are convicted while being hired by the government and being misinterpreted is a tragedy that is added to another one. A few things emerge, which have to do with culture, limitations of science, and construction. I start with the latter one.

    I think I may speak with some authority, even though I do not have any papers to show for it. I grew up as the son of an engineer. And I come from a place 2000 kilometers from the disaster aeria, the netherlands, not a country prone to earthquakes as it is mostly build on mud.
    I have worked at construction-sites, and seen how even with the dutch regulations – which are adhered to firmly, and not just by the authorities but as well by the builders – things go wrong in construction.
    This can’t be helped for two reasons: One is that the plans are complicated and lack the correct interpretation, secondly engineers behind the drawing-board have a problem imagining what will be the result of their what I call ‘dreams’. I have seen engineers pop up at the site to solve particular problems where they were imaginative when they didn’t need to be. And yes, there was the phrase in my mind ringing, I told you so.
    That is the dutch situation, in Italy however I have been walking around in wonder where the money for construction went to, and why it is just such a bloody mess.
    I have compared their tunnels (a famous one on the Italian-French border says it all) to the Swiss: The Italian ones are dirty, dark, unsafe, where as you go through a Swiss one feels safe in a clean, well-lit, oneway tunnel.

    When I come to talk to the girlfriend of someone here up north, I talk to her not because I think about a sexual reward later on, or even when I do, the conversation won’t be disturbed by her mate on the basis of this thought.
    One might think this is irrelevant, but it is: When I come up a mind that has something rational to tell me, there is very little bias from that point of view; the constuction of the packaging of the messager has little to do with the message. In Italy I found the inverse to be annoyingly much more true. Italian males can and will inhibit rational behavior.

    The department of justice really wants to be involved with things like ‘proof’ and all the things that have got to do with science, and also has got to do with ‘sentiment’. However, like medicine, is suffers from the problems that come with tradition, and all that can drag with it for centuries on – do not oppose the opinion of your doctor, and when he did screw up, forget about anything that looks like ‘justice’ and ‘scientific proof’.
    The general opinion of the populous where it comes to the scientific method is not ingrained into the habitual thought – it looks like autism so much when you happen to do so. Rationality is just a very young practice as it comes as a replacement for religious thought, and accidents happen, like the conviction of scientists.

    Italian scientists are renowned, and for a good reason. They work marvels by times. They are hunted like rats when they are expected to do more than they can, in regard to the state of their science, just by a lack of comprehension on what they do and can do. There is a large gap of comprehension between them and the ones that pay them to supply them with answers.
    Engineers are limited by the division of imagination and reality.
    Mostly, disasters are a result of multiple reasons. One can be finely honed into the literature of justice, but forgo on simple realities such as emerge by simple experiments with more than two biljartballs; with two it is possible to calculate the tracks, with three it is almost impossible. Imagine a million, and one can see that it is perfectly impossible to predict a result, but to a well informed opinion.

    The conviction of scientists that are willing to lend a hand to do something about tragic is a grave mistake. It is the result of a social configuration that tries to supercede the rational basis. When the ones that invoke the science are not willing to take that serious on their own reasons it is hardly worth taking attention, unfortunatatly they have the means to lock up anybody, regardles of the proof they seek.
    I plead for the department of justice to be controled harder by scientists, and – indeed – to be judged by their own standards on the basis they seek for their system.

    I apologise for all the errors in my response.

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