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Thursday, October 4, 2012

Italian scientists on trial

by Jamie Lutton

I read online a few days ago that the Italian government is putting some of their seismologists on trial, for not predicting the big earthquake they had in 2009. The Italian government was charging these men with manslaughter, and they could get four years in prison;_ylt=A2KJjagqk2hQ3ngArVPQt

This trial has been going on for a full year! The Italian government is serious, and is trying to hang an act of God on hapless local scientists. From the story linked above:

At the controversial March 31 meeting in L'Aquila, earth scientist Enzo Boschi, now a defendant in the case, acknowledged the uncertainty, calling a large earthquake "unlikely," but saying that the possibility could not be excluded. In a post-meeting press conference, however, Department of Civil Protection official Bernardo De Bernardinis, also a defendant, told citizens there was "no danger."

Prosecutors have portrayed De Barnardinis as a victim of bad information from the team of seismologists, reported Nature News.
The absurdity of this claim made me want to educate readers a bit about earthquakes, and volcanoes    I had read a science article recently that linked earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.  When there is an earthquake of  a great magnitude in one region, if there are dormant volcanoes nearby, they can be jolted into activity .
My own interest in volcanoes came from a personal experience.

In May of 1980, I was living on the top floor of a college dormitory in Bellingham, north of Seattle by about 90 miles.  I heard Mt. St. Helens erupt, even though  I was a good 160 miles away.  The sound of the blast went over the hills, so that people in tall buildings, or on mountainsides could hear the blast. Everyone on my floor ran out of their apartments, flooding the switchboard with reports of a large blast.
It was like hearing a large dynamite blast a quarter mile away.  Later, reading the news stories and seeing the photos, I was struck by just how far I was from the mountain at the time.
And St. Helens is a small volcano, and this eruption was small on the historical scale   So, I over the years I collected books and articles about  volcanoes, past and present, all over the world, and the historical accounts of their eruptions.
One of the best is the account of Pliny the Younger, who recalls his father's journey to get closer to Mt. Vesuvius when it erupted in 79 A.D., out of scientific curiosity. ( Saying "Fortune favors the brave", he  perished in a heart attack from the thick ash fall of this eruption.

The Roman city, Pompeii, that was situated on the shoulder of Mt. Vesuvius did not have the modern scientific devices to be able to predict that there was an eruption imminent. So they perished, as they assumed the smoking and rumblings would come to nothing, as it had for decades before. There had not been an eruption of  Vesuvius in the Roman 'historical' lifetime.
 Look at Mt Rainer (if it is a clear day). That huge volcano is intermittently active.  Only 5,600 years ago (a blink in geological time) a lahar flow so large it has it's own name, the Osceola lahar. It buried the land where Tacoma and South Seattle is now with a 35 foot deep lahar  flow. That is a mudflow, viscous like flowing concrete, fueled by tons of rapidly melted glacier water.  Mt. Rainier did this once, and is fully capable of doing this again.

But we build on its flanks, and like the Romans before us, whistle in the dark, hoping for the best.
On January 26, 1700 AD, the Pacific Northwest experienced a major earthquake  that caused a tsunami so large that it reached the Japanese shore on January 27. It is   noted in their historical records as an 'orphan tsunami', reaching 15 feet high, there had been no quake locally.

This quake, an 8.7 to 9.2, on the modern Richter scale,  was so severe that a large part of the coast dropped 10 to 15 feet, burying and smothering thousands of cedars on the coastline.  The Juan de Fuca fault violently moves every 300 + - years; so we are  due for another 9 point quake in the next fifty years -or one hundred.
Instead of cedar trees coming down, our brick, metal and glass structures will be shaken and shattered.    There will be probably be a high numbers of human casualties, depending on what time of day it is; more casualties when people are at home at night, when their houses and apartments collapse on them.
And we can do little about this. Modern science has not been able to predict when an earthquake will happen, only that, judging by the geological record, that it will happen.
A volcanic eruption, unlike an earthquake, can be forecast with at least some accuracy.  Many lives were saved in 1980 because the science of prediction had advanced to the point that thousands of people around St. Helens were evacuated before the eruption.  Sensors are now placed all over all known volcanoes in the world. These record 'distortions' of the mountain, signaling magma is moving far below the surface. There have been recent advances in vulcanology; so that estimations of the size of the magma chamber underground can be made.

All educated people, scientists and laymen, say this this trial in Italy is going to be  a travesty, as the science is not advanced enough to say how bad a quake is going to be, or when it will strike.  The government is making 'examples' of these scientists, to appease their (unfortunately) ignorant and angry citizens. It is quite alarming to me that a world government would be foolish and cruel enough to  punish these hard working seismologists because they could not predict the unpredictable.            

We should instead just insist on strict and improving building codes - and not put seismologists on some show trial.

So, we can build new buildings to standards to withstand quakes, and urge retrofitting of old ones.  We put monitors on all of our active volcanoes, so that we can have sufficient warning to evacuate the land around and below volcanoes.  We choose to live in the shadow of death, as volcanic soil is fertile, and the land is pleasant to live in.

We should educate citizens to have a healthy respect for Nature. for to remember an old saying "when Man makes plans, God laughs".

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