Italy in Geological News

First a volcano-related item: How did the victims of the Plinean Eruption of Vesuvius die – a summary from io9, of an article assessing how the victims of the Vesuvius eruption died. It will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with how freaking scary pyroclastic flows are that they died from being flash-cooked by the extreme heat of the flow, rather than suffocated by it.

And then, Italian scientists who failed to predict L’Aquila earthquake may face manslaughter charges. Argh. Argh argh argh. Considering how inherently unpredictable earthquakes are – more unpredictable than volcanic eruptions or tsunami – I was primed to be ticked off from the instant I read the headline. The article mentions foreshocks (one of them a 4.0) but the problem there is that you can only really classify a foreshock in hindsight. Was the magnitude 4.0 the prelude to a bigger earthquake, or an earthquake in its own right? There’s no way of knowing for certain until after you get hit by (or fail to be) by a much larger quake.

“Those responsible are people who should have given different answers to the public,” said Alfredo Rossini, L’Aquila’s public prosecutor. “We’re not talking about the lack of an alarm, the alarm came with the movements of the ground. We’re talking about the lack of advice telling people to leave their homes.”

This is the ultimate in damned if you do, damned if you don’t situations. If you warn people to leave their homes because a natural disaster is imminent and it doesn’t happen, you catch flak – think about the complaining that came after the tsunami that did hit Hawaii wasn’t the monster wall of water that makes up journalistic wet-dreams. But if you don’t tell people to clear out of their homes because there’s the possibility of an inherently unpredictable event occurring, then you get in trouble for that as well. Hindsight is 20/20, particularly when it comes to earthquakes. Though this:

At a press conference after the meeting, government official Bernardo De Bernardinis, deputy technical head of the Civil Protection Agency, told reporters that “the scientific community tells us there is no danger, because there is an ongoing discharge of energy. The situation looks favorable.” In addition to the six scientists, De Bernardinis is also under investigation.

Also really doesn’t help. Small earthquakes might release some stress on a fault, but that also might add stress to a different portion of the same fault, or another fault nearby. The environment of stress and faulting that goes on beneath us is too uncontrolled and not well mapped enough to allow for the incredibly accurate modeling you’d need to be able to say something like that. So if that’s something the seismologists in question were telling the government, shame on them. But I also have a hard time imagining any geologist worth his or her salt saying that unless they were simultaneously on some kind of mind-altering drug regimen, so I’d really like to know just who in the “scientific community” De Bernardinis was referring to. For all I know, the “scientific community” is a bright blue space elf that only he can see.

What a horrible situation. And way to make “Italian seismologist” a very unappealing job title.

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