Italian quake verdict rattles local scientists

By Sue Vorenberg, Columbian features reporter

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For geologist Yumei Wang, the notion that an Italian court would send scientists to jail for failing to adequately predict an earthquake is just plain frightening.

Wang, a geotechnical engineer with the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries in Portland, said she was shocked when she heard that seven scientists in Italy had been sentenced to six years in prison after a earthquake killed more than 300 people in 2009.

“This is really sending ripples through the scientific community,” Wang said. “There’s just a huge disconnect between what people think seismologists can tell them and what we actually do. The reality is that we can’t predict earthquakes.”

Geologists and seismologists in this area know where many fault lines are, including one that could lead to a 9.0 or higher earthquake here in the Pacific Northwest. They also gather evidence of prior activity, looking at rock samples and documents from recorded history about the times of past quakes.

But knowing when they’ll actually strike? That’s anybody’s guess.

“We can tell you where things are and what’s happened before, but we can’t tell you when things will happen in the future,” Wang said.

Cheryl Bledsoe, an emergency manager for the Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency, said she was also surprised by the Italian court’s finding.

“I don’t know all the facts, but I think it’s common knowledge that it’s really difficult to predict earthquakes,” Bledsoe said.

The Italian scientists were accused of giving “inexact, incomplete and contradictory information” about whether small tremors before the 2009 quake should have led to a major earthquake warning.

That’s something that’s hard to tell, because scientists haven’t yet found a way to know for certain exactly when faults will slip, Wang said.

Knowing that an earthquake is possible is a good reason to practice earthquake drills and be ready.

But it’s doubtful a lawsuit blaming scientists for not telling people exactly when it would happen would go very far in the U.S., Bledsoe said.

“Any natural disaster spawns lawsuits,” Bledsoe said. “Victims look to the court system when they find themselves ill-prepared. But the lawsuits rarely go very far.”