Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Italian Earthquake Warning Verdict

As you can imagine, I have been asked by everyone from personal friends to The Wall Street Journal what I think of the verdict convicting Italian seismologists for the crime of "inaccurate warning" (my phrase) when an earthquake occurred.

Obviously, it is a terrible verdict.

As I tell in Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather, the quest to warn of tornadoes, hurricanes, and aviation wind shear was one fraught with many setbacks and false starts. In more than one instance, it required tremendous personal courage to move the science forward and save lives. In 2011, 99.4% of the fatal tornadoes were preceded by both a tornado watch and a tornado warning before the storm arrived. The public at large does not appreciate how good our forecasts of extreme weather have become.

The tornado warning system saves approximately 1,100 to 2,000 lives each year. Had scientists been held liable for incorrect forecasts, those lives would be lost each year. Perfection will never be possible in the predictive sciences.

That said, there is one valuable lesson here. From the WSJ's story:

After a meeting on March 31, 2009, the commission said it had deemed a strong quake to be improbable in the short term, according to prosecutors. At a news conference that day, Bernardo De Bernardinis—at the time a top official at the Civil Protection unit, a government agency—said there was "no danger," calling it important to "remain alert, without panicking."
In the early hours of April 6, a quake of 6.3 magnitude hit L'Aquila and its surroundings.

That quake killed more than 300.

At the present time, science has no skill -- none -- at forecasting earthquakes. So, the scientists had no business telling people there was "no" danger. Such a forecast was not scientifically supportable.

I noted in the comments section of the WSJ's story that many people went to the topic of global warming. They are correct: So far, the forecasts of global warming have been disappointingly poor. At the current state-of-the-art, there is no reason to believe our forecasts of atmospheric temperatures decades from now will have any skill.

I invite readers to post any comments below and I'll answer them.


  1. It appears that the government bureaucrat was the one who declared 'no danger'. We don't know if he was a scientist, but I suspect not. His remarks were stupid, but to have any of this rise to the level of criminality is beyond belief. I noticed that no one from the building codes division or contractors were prosecuted. The reality is that these unfortunate victims lived in centuries old buildings that were susceptible to damage. What would have happened if they were all evacuated, returned and were inside when a huge quake occurred without any warning at all?


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