Italian Scientists Resign to Protest Earthquake Ruling

Posted October 23rd, 2012 at 2:45 pm (UTC-5)
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Senior members of Italy's government disaster assessment agency have resigned in protest, after seven scientists and experts were sentenced to jail for failing to give advance warning of a deadly earthquake that struck the central town of L'Aquila in 2009.

Luciano Maimi, the head of the Major Risks Committee, was among several people to resign Tuesday. He said the court ruling made it difficult to work in a calm and efficient manner.

An Italian court on Monday convicted the seismologists and other experts of manslaughter for underestimating the risks of the killer quake and failing to adequately warn citizens before it struck. The 6.3-magnitude temblor killed more than 300 people, left tens of thousands homeless, and destroyed the town's historic center and medieval churches.

The international scientific community denounced the trial, noting that predicting earthquakes is impossible. Even early warning systems, which rely on a network of sensors to detect surface seismic waves that precede larger quakes, can provide residents only 10 to 60 seconds advance notice, and then, only in areas where those sensors are in place.

After the quake, seismologists and other experts blamed lax building codes for the deaths and damage. In many earthquake-prone parts of the world, shoddy construction practices lead to many more deaths than would occur if homes and other buildings were more structurally sound.

The trial opened in September 2011 and was adjourned for more than a year, until resuming this month. The defendants have been sentenced to six years in prison, but they are unlikely to be jailed while their legal appeals are pending.

Some observers have expressed concern that the convictions will make other experts and public officials reluctant to share their expertise to avoid any legal repercussions.