Even then, we would have to tread carefully. Six Italian scientists and a former government official are currently being trialled for manslaughter after allegedly downplaying the risk of an earthquake that struck L’Aquila, Italy in 2009, killing 309 people. Meanwhile, a lab technician called Gioacchino Giuliani claims to have predicted the quake based on radon emissions, even though he raised two previous false alarms. The L’Aquila case illustrates how inaccurate predictions can lead to panic and unnecessary evacuations on one hand, or a false sense of security on the other.
And for what? Even if prediction became the exact science it clearly isn’t, we would still need evacuation plans and earthquake-proof buildings – and these measures do not depend on prediction. “If you want to promote resilience and safety, quantify the hazard and expected motions from earthquakes, and build buildings more appropriately,” says Hough. “That’s money better spent.”
Geller concurs. “All of Japan is at risk from earthquakes, and the present state of seismological science does not allow us to reliably differentiate the risk level in particular geographic areas,” he wrote in a recent comment piece in the magazine Nature. “We should instead tell the public and the government to prepare for the unexpected.”