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GNS scientists wary after Italian ruling

Tuesday 23 Oct 2012 4:35 p.m.

By Hamish Clark

A prominent New Zealand earthquake scientist is defending a decision to jail six Italians who failed to predict a quake that killed 309 people.

Kelvin Berryman told 3 News he's not surprised at the guilty verdict because they failed to do their job.

The 6.3 earthquake struck the town of L'Aquila, just days after the town was told there was no need for alarm.

In a makeshift court in central Italy, an Italian judge created uproar in the scientific world by handing down guilty verdicts against six of Italy’s leading scientists.

They were charged with manslaughter for not keeping the city of L'Aquila informed of the risk of a large earthquake. There were hundreds tremors in the months before the big one that killed 309 people.

One woman who lost her sister in the quake stood outside court and said, "Now they will start to take their responsibilities a bit more seriously."

A same-sized earthquake struck Christchurch last February, killing 185 people and destroying the town centre.

Dr Berryman, GNS scientist and manager of the Natural Hazards Research Management Platform, says he is not surprised they were all found guilty.

“I think they took a very optimistic view,” he says. “And despite several hundred years of information in Italy that it is a very active area, for the public to be told not to worry and go home and have a nice glass of wine would appear to be not a very professional call.”

But leading New Zealand earthquake engineer Stefano Pampinin, who travelled to Italy following the quake, says the sentences are a concern for all scientists.

“We had an earthquake in September, so should we condemn or put to jail a seismologist who could not predict February? Or the local authorities in Christchurch? Or the Government, not to evacuate the South Island or the whole of New Zealand?”

Forecasting earthquakes and aftershocks in Christchurch reached fever pitch when weather forecaster Ken Ring was slammed for trying to help a worried public. Scientists then tried to calm things down, releasing regular updates based on seismic data.

“I think it reminds us of duty of care and that as professionals we must always act professionally,” says Dr Berryman. “We are not expected to predict earthquakes but we are expected to provide balanced advice that is neither pessimistic or optimistic but lays out the uncertainties. I think above all when talking about earthquakes, be prepared.”

So what are the chances of scientists here being prosecuted? A leading law expert says there would be no chance of a similar case happening here, as scientists would never be held responsible for deaths as a result of an earthquake.

3 News

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