Editorial: Forecasters' folly flogged

Last updated 05:00 25/10/2012

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"There were dramatic scenes at the head office of New Zealand's MetService yesterday, following an equally dramatic snowstorm that hit parts of the South Island in the early hours of the morning, with snow in South and Mid Canterbury falling right down to sea level.

"At noon, two police vehicles arrived outside MetService headquarters and, after officers had been in the building for about an hour, they emerged, accompanied by the organisation's well-coiffed weather ambassador, Bob McDavitt, and some senior colleagues, who were handcuffed.

"At a press conference, Police Commissioner Snow Ball said five MetService employees had been charged with failing to predict the extent of the blizzard, resulting in severe stock losses on central South Island farms."

A bit of absurdist nonsense? Absolutely. A parody, a particular piece of pure poppycock. And yet... to the scientists with whose situation it seeks to paint a parallel, perhaps not so much of a laugh. I'm talking, of course, of the sentencing of six Italian seismologists and one official to six-year jail terms in relation to a devastating 2009 earthquake in the city of L'Aquila, which killed 309 people.

It's a story that would surely have been read with alarm by many in the seismological community here, after the destruction wrought in Christchurch on February 22, 2011. Imagine those doing their best to analyse and predict seismic activity in the Shaky Isles being faced with the prospect of jail time because they hadn't come up to the mark in an area we all know by now is not an exact science. It seems almost as ridiculous as the above fictitious scenario.

There were some differences, however. According to a report in The Times, London, the Italian scientists were jailed not for failing to predict the earthquake, which followed months of tremors, but for wrongly reassuring the public about the risk. A senior official from Italy's Civil Protection Agency seemed so confident there was no real danger, he suggested residents should sit back with a glass of wine.

It's difficult to imagine that level of cockiness in operation in New Zealand, where the risk of a major earthquake is continually emphasised.

Were charges to follow the February 2011 quake, which killed 185 people, one would expect them to relate not to faulty predictions, but to the controversy surrounding the CTV building, the collapse of which claimed 115 of those lives. It emerged this year that the building's construction manager had stolen the identity of a British engineer and worked on projects here and in Australia. A police investigation continues.

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- The Timaru Herald

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