Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Science and Earthquake Prediction

The recent earthquake that has devastated central Italy and caused hundreds of deaths, thousands of injuries and much property damage was inevitable. The area sits atop a major fault that is known to be active. The problem with earthquakes has always been man's inability to predict when they might occur.

So earthquake prediction is something that seismologists actively pursue, often without much success. The nature of earthquakes can be summed up in the words "few, if any, foreshocks, many aftershocks". The biggest shock is usually the first, coming with no warning.

So an Italian scientist decided to try to define earthquake activity using emanations of the gas radon. He had good evidence that the technique could work and when radon emissions changed in and around L'Aquila he spoke up. But the local government didn't listen. Worse, they suggested he was scaremongering and should keep quiet.

The Apennine Fault was not paying attention, however, and the scientist was proved to be right.

Why didn't they listen? Perhaps it's because science has been dumbed down in recent years to the point that scientists are no longer taken seriously as experts in their chosen subjects. And where do we look for evidence of this? In the great Anthropogenic Global Warming debate. Joe Public has become so disenchanted with the rhetoric surrounding global warming that all science is being discounted. The best science is rarely reported, the worst science is making all the headlines. And researchers know this, to the point that many who need funding are cheating.

Looked at this way, there is a reason why the local authorities made their mistake in ignoring the evidence of an impending earthquake.

Will we learn from this?

Unfortunately I doubt it.