By Marzia De Giuli
ROME, Oct. 23 (Xinhua) -- The Italian scientific community on Tuesday contested a court verdict over the deadly 2009 quake in the central city of L'Aquila, saying it set a damaging precedent as "there is no way, at present, to predict earthquakes".
Physicist Luciano Maiani resigned as president of national natural-disaster risk-assessment commission in protest against the verdict that handed six years jail sentence to seven government-appointed experts accused of manslaughter for giving a reassuring statement before the powerful shake.
Maiani said he had decided to step down along with some other officials of the commission due to the "impossibility for us of being able to work with serenity and provide the state with a high level of scientific consultancy".
The president of National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology (INVG) Stefano Gresta called himself "shocked" by Monday's ruling which "can significantly affect the relationship between scientists and decision-makers".
He said the decision could jeopardize the rights and duty of scientists to participate in the public dialogue by communicating their research results outside the scientific premises, for fear of legal retribution.
"In the entire world, it is impossible to predict earhquakes in a definitive way. Scientists are able to determine the so-called precursor phenomena only after a quake occurred," Gresta told Xinhua.
"Which scientists would like to express their opinion knowing they could go to jail?" he asked, adding that "condemning science means leaving the field open to preachers who brag about knowing how to forecast earthquakes, while giving up the contribution of distinguished scientists."
The president of the National Council of Geologists, Gianvito Graziano, was of the same opinion.
The grounds for the verdict have not been announced yet. If they are about the missed prediction of the L'Aquila disaster, "it means to condemn the entire scientific community which, at present, has no means to forecast earthquakes both in Italy and in the rest of the world," he said.
What Italian scientists are most concerned about is the possible consequences of this ruling, noted Paolo Messinathe, director of the National Research Council's (CNR) Institute of Environmental Geology and Geoengineering.
"I do not want this decision to send a message that earthquakes are predictable, because in fact it is impossible," he stressed. "Then, should we evacuate the entire population at each shock?"
The reality, the expert said, is that in Italy there are so many seismic movements all the time, and in different geographical locations.
"Should we take evacuation measures every time for the populations concerned, this would create a huge upheaval, both from the social and economic point of view. An absurd situation," he added.
The decision to prosecute some of Italy's respected seismologists and geological experts drew condemnation from around the world, with over 5,000 international scientists signing a letter to Italian President Giorgio Napolitano supporting those convicted.
However, Italian seismologist Giampaolo Giuliani, who said he had "predicted" weeks before the L'Aquila tragedy that a major earthquake would strike the region, was of a different opinion.
In 2009 the scientist, who had based his forecast on concentrations of radon gas around seismically active areas, reported to police for "spreading alarm," while the risk-assessment commission concluded it was "unlikely" there would be a major quake, though saying the possibility could not be ruled out.
Hundreds of smaller tremors had hit the area in the months before the 6.3-magnitude quake struck on April 6, killing 308 people and leaving over 1,500 others injured, besides destroying tens of thousands of ancient buildings and causing an estimated economic loss of more than 10 billion euros (about 13 billion U.S. dollars).
"Granted that Monday's ruling was not about the scientific expertise of the defendants, I am convinced that all physics phenomena in the universe, including earthquakes, have precise causes that produce them, thus studying such causes allows us to make predictions," Giuliani told Xinhua.
"But my experimental research has been boycotted by the Italian academic world, which prefers to use funding for different purposes," he pointed out, adding several international scientists are investing in this type of research including experts from Russia and the United States he is collaborating with.
Giuliani also stressed the case was not about the power of prediction, but about what was interpreted to be an inadequate characterization of the risk. "How could the government-appointed experts claim it was unlikely there would be a strong quake? They ruled out the possibility of predicting it?"Giuliani added, obviously agreeing with the verdict.
But his forecast "was proven not to have any scientific evidence by a team of experts who met and studied Giuliani's work a few months after the shake occurred," Gresta said.
"Scientists are not even able to make exact predictions on meteorological phenomena, how can be able to predict movements happening tens of kilometers below the earth's crust?" he said.
In his view, earthquake forecast is "only a dream" that risks to distract attention from the major and true problem of Italy, which lacks of prevention in building earthquake-resistant construction.