Of Earthquakes and Human Responsibility

Of Earthquakes and Human Responsibility

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From Slate’s Future Tense blog:

A study published in the journal Nature Geoscience indicates that human activity triggered a deadly earthquake in southern Spain last year. Meanwhile, the next day in Italy, six scientists and a government official were sentenced to six years in prison for a deadly earthquake last year that they played no role whatsoever in triggering.

Let’s start with the Spain quake, a magnitude 5.1 that hit Lorca last year, killing nine and injuring hundreds more. We’ve known for years that human activity could trigger small quakes under certain circumstances. But a new study led by Pablo Gonzalez of the University of Western Ontario provides fresh evidence that humans can trigger surprisingly large, deadly quakes as well. Using satellite data and computer models, Gonzalez and his team linked the quake to the removal of huge amounts of groundwater in the region for irrigation. As the city and surrounding area sucked fresh water from the ground, the water table dropped by some 250 meters since 1960.

In an odd coincidence, Gonzalez’s paper was published online the day before an Italian court found seismologists guilty of manslaughter for pronouncements that gave residents a false sense of security ahead of a 6.3 earthquake that killed 309 in L’Aquila in 2009. Following a conference of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks a week before the quake, a government official assured the public that seismic activity in the region posed “no danger.” Prosecutors alleged that this pronouncement led people to stay in their homes when the first tremors began rather than fleeing before the worst of the shaking.