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Scapegoats for overstrained authorities?

Can scientists be held responsible when they fail to predict a natural disaster?

In February 1975 something exceptional happened in China. Nocturnal animals came out of their holes, chicken stepped down their ladders and dogs and cats behaved in strange ways. Chinese farmers, who were ordered by law to report unusual behavior of their animals to the local authorities, did so. After consulting scientists, regional officials announced an Earthquake warning. They ordered the evacuation of Haicheng, a city of one million inhabitants. On February 4th, a 7.3 earthquake shook the region. More than 2,000 people died but it was estimated that the number of fatalities and injuries would have exceeded 150,000 if no earthquake prediction and evacuation had been made.

Seismologists all over the world looked in astonishment to China. Only five months later, on July 28th, a 7.6 quake hit Tangshan, another one-million city in China. No warning, no precursors. The Earthquake took 250,000 lives. This quake dispelled any hope that seismology was a reliable method for earthquake-prediction.

In the present day, the life of earthquake scientists is uneasy. Six seismologists are accused of manslaughter for not raising the alarm in the days preceding the earthquake in L’Aquila, Italy, last year.

Thereaction of the scientific community is immense. More than 5,160 scientists and other professionals from different countries have signed an appeal letter to the President of Italy, Giorgio Napolitano. Natures blog “The Great Beyond“ asked, whether the categorical support is misleading. “The indictment is an unfortunate result of the way Italian science is being practiced,” said Flavio Dobarn in a letter to Nature, referring to a strongly politicised academic environment.

Others ask, if the hazard assessment methods have to be adapted to a modern knowledge of earthquakes and their processes. This argument is addressed to all countries, living in constant risk of extreme natural phenomena. Research on modern vulnerability and appropriate urban management structures have to be taken into account.

Is accusing scientists for not predicting an unpredictable natural phenomenon an acceptable reaction? It definitely should be the starter for a new debate on when politics and science collide – especially to find solutions for a sensitive problems like disaster management.

Featured image credit: think4photop via Shutterstock

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Simon Schneider
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