Lex et Scientia: Bang and Blame?

First Responders at Laquila 2009

First Responders assist the injured at L'Aquila, 2009

    A court in Italy is trying a panel of scientists for manslaughter. No, the scientists didn’t go out for a night of hard partying, and then kill someone. Their crime, according to prosecutors, is failing to predict the April 6th, 2009 L’Aquila earthquake, which registered 5.8 on the Richter Scale and claimed 308 lives. According to a Fox News article on the case, “hundreds” of tremors had been felt in the area in the days and weeks prior to the event. Those prosecuting the case state that residents should have been warned to evacuate their homes.

     Talk to any Geologist or Seismologist worth their salt, and they will tell you without any ambiguity that it is nearly impossible to predict when and where a major quake will occur to a degree of certainty. Oh, there are signs and indicators that things might get bumpy, however exactly when it will get bumpy cannot be narrowed down to a finite schedule. For decades now, seismologists at UCLA, UC Berkeley and the U.S. Geological Survey have been attempting to gain a better idea of when a major event might strike on California’s San Andreas Faultline, to no certain avail. Seismic stations costing millions of dollars have been set up in places along the fault that have a history of seismic activity, such as the one at Parkfield, California in an attempt to predict quake activity.

     The March 11th, 2011 Honshu, Japan event measured 8.8 on the Richter. (You, my fine young readers might remember that one a few months back; tsunami warnings, nuclear power plants failing and all of that?) It was preceded by two days of events averaging 6.5 to 7.5 on the scale. Before that, not a peep. At least, nothing over a 5 if anything. (I just looked through all of my ENS alerts for the year preceding the quake, and nothing.) What these Italians should have realized by now is that quakes, especially major quakes often strike without much warning, in spite of our best efforts to predict them.

     In this writer’s own (sometimes less than) humble opinion, this is a clear-cut case of the Italian prosecutors looking for someone to blame for the loss of lives when in fact, they should be looking at themselves. All that time before the quake hit, they should have been pressing for better construction standards on housing, proper zoning of land, and alleviating overcrowding.

     The L’Aquila event occurred at approximately 03:32 A.M. local time, when most people would have been asleep in their beds. Collapsing homes, falling debris and even secondary causes such as shock and stress-related heart attacks are probably the main culprits in the lives lost in L’Aquila. What bugs the hell out of me is that we have quakes of that magnitude here in California quite often, with nowhere near the loss of life seen at L’Aquila in 2009. Another problem is that the mainstream media often sensationalizes the event, focusing on that “oh, so big number” on the scale and the number of lives lost, without even touching on the factors that led to those heavy loss statistics.

     In closing, the Italian people need to stop wasting court time and money, trying an impossible case. Instead, they need to gain a better understanding of the geologically-active ground on which they choose to live. Ask any Californian, and they’ll tell you that we’re aware of the risks. Do we take seismic events seriously here? Yes, but with a grain of salt and acceptance.

“L.A. town is falling down,

while the ground, moves around.

We won’t let it get us down;

We’re Californians!”

(Animaniacs, from “A Quake”)

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2 comments on “Lex et Scientia: Bang and Blame?

  1. Well, I must say, I totally agree with you!

  2. Another thing that makes the L’Aquila quake more devastating than similar quakes here, is that part of L’Aquila sits on an ancient lake bed, which tends to amplify seismic shaking. Again, this is a zoning and land use issue, not any fault (no pun intended!) of the scientists in failing to predict the event, which again would have been near impossible.

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