Scientist Smackdown: Did a Seismologist Accurately Predict the Italian Quake?

By Eliza Strickland | April 6, 2009 4:15 pm

Italy earthquakeThe earthquake that hit central Italy in the middle of last night, reducing some towns to rubble and killing at least 90 people, was foretold by an Italian seismologist–but his warnings were ignored, according to news reports. However, many researchers say that the seismologist’s predictions were based on inadequate evidence, and say the Italian government was right not to publicize his predictions, as they would only have spread panic.

The region felt its first tremors in mid-January. Scientists say that tremors do not necessarily indicate that a larger quake is on the way, but seismologist Giampaolo Giuliani grew increasingly concerned. He published his warnings, which received some attention; according to Italian newspapers, vans with loudspeakers drove around the town of L’Aquila one month ago telling locals to evacuate their houses. Then Giuliani, who based his forecast on concentrations of radon gas around seismically active areas, was reported to police for “spreading alarm” and was forced to remove his findings from the Internet. “Now there are people who have to apologize to me and who will have what has happened on their conscience” [Reuters], he told an Italian newspaper.

Giuliani measured radon gas emitted by the smaller tremors, and initially predicted that a large quake would strike on March 29. When it didn’t, Guido Bertolaso, head of Italy’s Civil Protection Agency, last week officially denounced Giuliani in court for “false alarm.” “These imbeciles enjoy spreading false news,” Bertalaso was quoted as saying. “Everyone knows that you can’t predict earthquakes” [Time].

Although at first glance last night’s 6.3 magnitude quake seems to have validated Giuliani’s predictions, other researchers argue that Giuliani’s accuracy was a matter of chance. Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics and Vulcanology said in a statement that “at the current state of knowledge” it was not possible to forecast the location, timing and force of an earthquake [BBC News]. While some seismologists working around California’s San Andreas Fault announced last year that subtle shifts in subterranean rocks may presage an earthquake by a few hours, that research is still at an early stage.

Ross Stein of the U.S. Geological Survey notes that there was a flurry of interest in using radon gas measurements to predict earthquakes in the 1980s and early 1990s, but says most researchers gave up on the idea over a decade ago. Stein explains that one problem is that radon is a gas that is measured at the surface, which is a long way from where whatever it is that happens to trigger an earthquake, 10 miles below the earth’s surface, is taking place. He added that since radon gas is so easy to measure, “it can launch an armchair industry” of earthquake forecasters [The New York Times blog].

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Image: United States Geological Survey

  • Greg

    Someone needs to review his methodology and see if perhaps it could be used to predict some earthquakes. As everyone knows the topology and mineralology of different regions can vary quite a bit and this may have an impact upon what precursors can be used to make predictions. Also, this fault probably was a thrust fault rather than a strike-slip, so using the San Andreas for comparison may not be relevant. Sometimes a seemingly mad scientist may be on to something and this person apparently felt very strongly about his methods to make such a prediction forcefully and publish it. To causually dismiss this would be no better than what Bertolaso did.

  • Boyko Iliev

    Your earthquakes in the future are here. See more than 2000 world science earthquake predictions. The plate tectonic NOT makes the earthquakes…

    In YouTube: BOYKOILIEV2008

  • Michael

    Predicting one earthquake could well be a fluke. If Guiliani can predict another one with some accuracy he will get the attention he deserves.

  • Mike

    In areas prone to large quakes, people should ALAWYS have it on their mind and always be ready. Evacuations of course would be too disruptive since exact dates can’t be given, but many of these buildings should have been reinforced – governments need to help pay for this. His warnings should have at least encouraged local authorities to stock up on food and water and tents. I bet they will now.

    The removal of rubble and rebuilding will be much more expensive than the cost of beefing up support for all these buildings. Not to mention all the dead and shattered lives and possible law suits. All governments should take note of this lesson.

    I live in LA and have a good stash of food and water. I have also bolted my house to its foundation. No one else I know ever thinks about it. Most people are totally unprepared and take a passive attitude about it, they do not even store water. I love living here, and enjoy the local mountains, but understand and respect the forces that put them there.

  • italianopinionist

    I’m very lucky: I live in Milan, in the heart of Po Valley, one of Italy’s region less exposed to earthquakes’ risk. I read the news from L’Aquila this morning, while having my breakfast as all the newspapers’ readers in every part of the world. And I was surprised that a similar tragedy occurred in my own country without any italian citizen living in northern Italy even felt or imagined anything. The lack of any tangible signal can be explained by the distance between Milan and L’Aquila, which however is not so big to reduce the emotive impact and the pain for our compatriots. But beside these feelings there are also a lot of questions which arise as I go on reading more and more news on Italian and foreign newspapers.

    Italy lies on two fault lines and has been hit by powerful earthquakes in the past, mainly in the center and south of the country. Why are we so unprepared? I’m not referring to people, who probably are trained in these regions to flee in the open air when earth begins to quake. I’m wondering why buildings are not predisposed to resist to similar events.

    I know we are a country characterized by historical buildings dating back centuries, full of cultural symbols and art. But when people lives and safety comes to the point a better compromise between preserving and rebuilding maybe could be found. I’m sure a lot of people could point to my comment as a way to make the question too easy and maybe they are right in some respects. But I think we can’t forget that a similar tragedy occurred just few years ago in Molise (2002, San Giuliano di Puglia) when a school collapsed due to an earthquake causing the death of 27 children and the teacher. Every time I come to know about similar events in Italy I can’t help asking myself if the loss in terms of human lives would be less in a more equipped country.

    In this particular case the questions arising in my head are more than in previous tragedy (San Giuliano, 2002): could the deaths have been prevented if Giuliani’s forecast had been taken in more consideration?
    In previous days I didn’t notice the news about the earthquake’s forecast. Today in Italy it is subject of discussion and appears in evidence in almost all headlines immediately after the constant updates from L’Aquila.
    Is this forecast really a simple coincidence? Earthquakes can’t really be foretold? Or is this just an example of what we can loose ignoring science new discoverings?
    In front of present L’Aquila’s people suffering these questions are useless… but what for the future?

  • YouRang

    So how deep was the epicenter? There seems to be disagreement about its intensity. Although that could be accounted for possibly by depth of epicenter, it would seem the discrepancy goes the wrong way–American geologist say it was more intense than the Italian geologists, possibly point to a deeper center that left Italy without ringing the Italian geologist’s bells. (“Wrong” in the sense that a shallow epicenter might be predictable by radon.) Of course a thrust fault quake might send energy straight down to America so to speak.
    In any event, I’m going to make a prediction. I’ll assume the epicenter is shallow; I’m going to infer that that supports Giuliani.

  • katie

    will more earthquake happen it the future (in italy)

  • Boyko Iliev

    See in YouTube: BOYKOILIEV2008
    more than 2000 world science earthquake predictions. The plate tectonic NOT makes the earthquakes. The moon makes the earthquakes.

  • donie

    are you cansend to my email about your earth quake predict in indonesia?,because i was live at west sumatra,,and all my familly scared about this earth quake,,thank you,,please send to my email at

  • Brian

    If I remember correctly, the Chinese had one spectacular (because it was correct and clearly saved many lives) earthquake prediction back in the 70’s. However they could never repeat the achievement.

    The general conclusion was that either:

    1). They got lucky (which seems a bit harsh and also itself may be improbable);
    2). They were on to something, but they only had one small part of the picture. Therefore in a quake with the applicable risk factors their predictors were useful, but lots of quakes have other risk factors they weren’t accounting for.

    Bottom line, their prediction system was too flawed to be useful. I also seem to recall that the Chinese were paying attention to qualitative factors like animal behaviour. Since those predictors couldn’t be quantified, the scientific community was uncomfortable with their methodology.

  • Kirsty

    You people don’t know what you’re talking about. Scientists can predict earthquakes. They use seismographs to measure to level of energy occuring in the land. When they notice something off, they can use previous patterns of what happens before an earthquake to guess that one will occur. However, they may not know exactly when, but they will know about when it take place.

  • Boyko Iliev

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