SALT LAKE CITY — A court battle over an Italian earthquake has sent shock waves rippling through scientific circles around the world, even rattling geologists in Utah.
Seven Italian experts were sentenced to six years in jail for manslaughter because they failed to adequately warn the public that a big quake was coming.
The outcome is especially shocking to geologists because they know the verdict is based on expectations that scientists simply cannot meet.
"I would say it's wrong," said Keith Koper, director of the University of Utah's Seismograph Station. "It's harsh and wrong, to be honest. It's a little bit unsettling that scientists are actually going to jail."
The criminal trial revolved around a devastating quake on April 6, 2009. The 6.3-magnitude temblor flattened numerous buildings and killed 308 people in the vicinity of L'Aquila, a medieval town in northern Italy. An indictment accused the scientists and experts of giving "inexact, incomplete and contradictory information" about whether small tremors felt by residents in the weeks before the big quake should have constituted grounds for a warning to the general public.
Even before the verdict and sentences were announced, scientists denounced the trial as ridiculous because seismic experts have no reliable way to predict earthquakes.
"It would be a real coup if we could give warning to society and to the different emergency operators," Koper said. "But the problem is, it's just a complicated system and we don't really have a good understanding of why earthquakes start and why they stop."
Koper said scientists do have the capability of making long-term projections about the likelihood of earthquakes in areas that have a history of seismic activity. But a short-term prediction, within hours or days, may never be possible.
"People have tried for decades to come up with different precursors" that would indicate a big quake is coming, Koper said, "but nothing's been found yet. And most of us are pretty skeptical that we'll be able to predict earthquakes on a short time-scale."
It's easy to imagine other circumstances in which the Italy precedent could be applied.
Could a TV weatherman be charged with manslaughter if someone dies in a snowstorm that wasn't predicted?
Could a hydrologist be blamed for a fatal flood no one expected?
If a skier dies in an avalanche, on a day when conditions are rated "moderate," could the Utah Avalanche Center take the rap?
"What happens if somebody doesn't predict the right track for a hurricane?" Koper asked. "Are they then criminally liable? That would definitely make the experts more hesitant to make predictions and to make forecasts."
It could also make experts so jumpy they would predict too much, too often.
"It's not a good thing if scientists are going to be overly cautious and, in a sense, cry wolf too often," Koper said. "People will get used to these alarms and then they won't react and then it could even be worse."
He argues that some responsibility rests with the public, not just with seismic experts.
"We don't really know when earthquakes are going to happen," Koper said. "So the best advice is to be prepared."
The Italian case is currently on appeal so the seven experts have not yet started serving their sentences.
Contributing: Associated Press