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Earthquake warnings go unheeded

Italy muzzled scientist who foresaw quake

2009 Apr 07 - National Post

ROME -- An Italian scientist predicted a major earthquake around L'Aquila weeks before disaster struck the city Monday, killing more than 100 people, but was reported to authorities for spreading panic.

The government insisted the warning, by seismologist Gioacchino Giuliani, had no scientific foundation but Mr. Giuliani said he had been vindicated and wanted an apology.

"There are people out there who should be offering me apologies -- and whose conscience should bear the full weight of what has happened."

He added, "It is not true to say that earthquakes cannot be predicted. We have been able to predict events for almost 10 years in a range of 120-150 kilometres from our detectors.

"In the last three days we saw a large increase of radon. Large increases of radon, above safety thresholds, mean strong earthquakes. Even classic technology could have been used to predict it. My seismograph indicated a strong earthquake and we had it online, everybody could watch it, and many did and realized that the tremors were increasing."

The first tremors in the region were felt in mid-January and continued at regular intervals, creating mounting alarm in the medieval city, about 100 km northeast of Rome.

Vans with loudspeakers drove around L'Aquila, capital of the Abruzzo region, a month ago telling locals to evacuate their houses after Mr. Giuliani, a researcher at the National Institute of Astrophysics, predicted a large quake was on the way, prompting the mayor's anger.

Mr. Giuliani was reported to police for "spreading alarm" and was forced to remove his findings from the Internet.

The scientist, who lives in L'Aquila and developed his findings while working at the National Institute of Nuclear Physics in the surrounding region, said he was helpless to act on Sunday as it became clear to him the quake was imminent.

"I didn't know who to turn to, I had been put under investigation for saying there was going to be an earthquake."

As the media asked whether, in light of his warnings, the government had protected residents properly, Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian Prime Minister, seemed on the defensive at a news conference.

He said people should concentrate on relief efforts for now, and "we can discuss afterward about the predictability of earthquakes."

Italy's Civil Protection agency held a meeting of the major risks committee, grouping scientists charged with assessing such risks, in L'Aquila on March 31 to reassure the townspeople.

"The tremors being felt by the population are part of a typical sequence ... [which is] absolutely normal in a seismic area like the one around L'Aquila," the agency said in a statement on the eve of that meeting.

It added it saw no reason for alarm, but was nonetheless carrying out "continuous monitoring and attention".

Guido Bertolaso, the head of the agency, referred back to that meeting at Monday's joint news conference with Mr. Berlusconi.

"There is no possibility of predicting an earthquake, that is the view of the international scientific community," he said.

Enzo Boschi, the head of the National Geophysics Institute, said the real problem for Italy was a long-standing failure to take proper precautions despite a history of tragic quakes.

"We have earthquakes but then we forget and do nothing. It's not in our culture to take precautions or build in an appropriate way in areas where there could be strong earthquakes," he said.

Other experts warned that other deadly tremors could now follow.

John McCloskey, a professor of geophysics at the University of Ulster said, "Earthquakes like this frequently trigger other earthquakes in the region. After the Umbria and Marche earthquakes in Italy in 1997, there was a sequence of eight events higher than magnitude five in the following two months."

With files from The Daily Telegraph


Sounds familiar?

For over thirty years, warnings from Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring", Donella Meadows' "Limits to Growth", Colin Campbell's "Peak Oil", Richard Heinberg's "The Party's Over", David Suzuki's "The Sacred Balance", Thomas Homer-Dixon's "The Upside of Down" and so many others have gone largely ignored. They have been warning us and yet we fail to pay attention and to act.

The in-your-face catastrophic disasters caused by earthquakes are overwhelming, to say the least. And yet we know that the slow march of global warming, climate change and economic collapse will not happen overnight while we are sleeping. By the time we feel the tremors it will be too late.

We are in a deep slumber. It is time to wake up and act now.

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