Case Study on L'Aquila

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Did a Technician Accurately Forecast the L'Aquila Earthquake--Or Was It a Lucky Guess? Yesterday, a magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck L'Aquila, Italy, killing more than 150 people, injuring some 1,000, and leaving thousands of people homeless. Soon after the deadly temblor hit, news outlets including Time magazine, Reuters, and The New York Times reported Italian authorities had previously removed from the Internet a warning that a big quake was imminent. The prediction had been posted weeks earlier by a techician at the Gran Sasso National Laboratory in Abruzzi, Italy.*

The technician, Giampaolo Giuliani, who could not be reached for comment, had predicted that a massive earthquake would strike based on measurements of radon emissions. Skeptical Italian officials--believing that he was sowing unwarranted panic—publicly refuted the warnings and admonished Giuliani in court.

Did authorities err in contradicting Giuliani's prediction? Could lives have been saved had they heeded the warning?

"I am skeptical of the claim," says Shawn Larsen, a geophysicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. "Radon has been claimed to be a precursor of earthquakes for some time, since the late 70s. However, there has been no concrete evidence that it is indeed a predictor of earthquakes."

According to John Rundle, director of the California Institute for Hazard Research, a joint program between different University of California (U.C.) schools, the frequent release of that gas results in far too many false alarms to make the system trustworthy. Radon has been associated with seismic events, and earthquakes can cause the release of radon and other ground gases. The problem is, he says, many phenomena other than large earthquakes also result in radon release, including rainfall and atmospheric pressure changes.

"It has too many false positives to be useful," says Rundle, a professor of physics, geology and engineering at U.C. Davis. ""We actually do...
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