Kiwi scientists join petition over quake trial

The public will lose out if court cases like the one faced by scientists, accused of failing to warn residents about a deadly Italian earthquake, push experts into safer fields, says a New Zealand researcher.

GNS scientists and quake experts are among a number of New Zealand seismologists who have signed a petition supporting the seven scientists and other experts, who are charged with manslaughter.

The New Zealand scientists had joined about 5200 international researchers in signing the petition.

The seven Italian scientists and other experts are accused of giving "inexact, incomplete and contradictory information" about whether smaller tremors felt by L'Aquila residents in the six months before the April 6, 2009, magnitude 6.3 quake should have constituted grounds for a quake warning.

The defendants are facing manslaughter charges over the deaths of 308 people who were killed in the tremor.

Victoria University Geophysics Professor Martha Savage said the case showed there was a big gap between what scientists could deliver and ''what the local population and politicians want us to be able to deliver''.

"If the public decides to make scientists accountable through fines or jail terms for their announcements regarding natural hazard risks, the scientists will respond by not saying anything, and possibly by moving their research into areas where they are not as likely to encounter such uncertainty. Therefore, the public will lose out."

She said the situation was also not helped by non-scientists who claimed to be able to "predict" earthquakes.

Scientists and their international colleagues say there is no way of predicting a quake.

"It's impossible to predict earthquakes so it doesn't seem right to charge them for failing to predict anything when there is nothing they can predict," GNS seismologist John Ristau said.

He said he signed the petition "to basically say this is ridiculous".

Large earthquakes were expected in areas of high seismic activity, such as Fiordland, Ristau said, and no one could have predicted the 7.1-magnitude quake in Christchurch on September 4.

"There was nothing unusual in the Canterbury region leading up to the Darfield quake - it was pretty quiet.

"Usually in areas of high seismic activity you'd expect there to be a large earthquake - so we wouldn't have expected a large earthquake in the Canterbury plains."

Victoria University geophysics Professor Euan Smith said it appeared the charged scientists were unjustly being blamed for the community's lack of preparation.

"In 1987 I was involved in a situation with some similarities... when an earthquake swarm started near Maketu in the central Bay of Plenty. 

"After a few days of activity, my [DSIR] director thought we should say something about the earthquakes. Accordingly I issued a press statement on March 2 saying that there was no reason to expect that the earthquakes would lead to a bigger one (such swarms are common there) but that earthquakes were likely to be ongoing and residents should take sensible precautions.

"While this was being aired by the media, the Edgecumbe earthquake (magntiude 6.5) struck at 1.42 pm. I was somewhat derided in the media - the Auckland Star sent me an electric kettle for getting into hot water. It might have been much worse for me if there had been heavy casualties, but there weren't."

Earthquake statistician David Rhoades said he felt it was unjust to ''prosecute scientists for failing to predict an event that was unpredictable by any scientific method''.

''In my opinion, the most scientists can do is to estimate the probability of an earthquake occurring in a given space-time-magnitude window.

"Giving any kind of warning, or advice to the public of what to do in the light of such information, is the proper responsibility of government authorities, and not of their scientific advisors.''

University of Canterbury geological science lecturer Mark Quigley said the ''holy grail'', a way for scientists to predict the specific location, depth, time and magnitude of an earthquake did not exist.

''One could say that the chance of a major earthquake may increase during a seismic swarm, [but] history dictates that more often than not major earthquakes do not follow these events, and [the] probability of delivering a 'false alarm' and causing undue panic would have been quite high,'' he said.

''To me this highlights the importance of effective science communication; while it is important to provide the public with probabilistic earthquake 'forecasts' it is equally important to contextualise these assessments.''