In the realm of disaster stories, real life ones don't get much more tragic -- or much stranger -- than that of the earthquake that rocked the town of L'Aquila in central Italy on Monday, approximately 100 km northeast of Rome. While many regions have earthquake-proofed their buildings, L'Aquila was woefully unprepared for the earthquake. Many buildings collapsed and over 200 people are reported to have died.
However, there is a bizarre side to this tragedy, as well. A month before the quake, Giampaolo Giuliani, a researcher at Italy's National Institute of Nuclear Physics, warned citizens of the coming quake, only to be silenced by the government.
Mr. Giuliani supports a controversial theory that radioactive gas, radon, is released before major quakes and by detecting its levels, major quakes can be predicted. Sure enough, during a series of minor tremors in March, Mr. Giuliani detected the release of radon.
He and his colleagues traveled the area, speaking through a megaphone, trying to warn citizens of what he believed to be a coming quake. The locals became very angry and called the police. Mr. Giuliani was detained and admonished for scaremongering.
Among senior seismologists in Italy, Mr. Giuliani was met with little sympathy. Guido Bertolaso, the head of Italy's civil protection agency, denounced Mr. Giuliani and his colleagues as "imbeciles who spread false information". He pointed out that Mr. Giuliani also reportedly believed in other outlandish means of prediction, such as linking seismic activity to phases of the moon, and the earth's alignment to Venus.
On March 31, the civil protection agency held an emergency meeting. At the meeting, the agency sought to reassure concerned citizens, stating, "The tremors being felt by the population are part of a typical sequence ... (which is) absolutely normal in a seismic area like the one around L'Aquila."
They added, "It is useful to underline that it is not in any way possible to predict an earthquake."
The rest is now history, as the tragedy unfolded early this week. Mr. Giuliani has since spoke with the press and expressed his outrage. He states, "I want apologies from Boschi (Enzo Boschi, president of the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology,) and Bertolaso (Guido Bertolaso, the civil protection chief), on behalf of all those who died today. My prediction unfortunately proved correct."
He continues, "We have been able to predict these kinds of events for 10 years. Over the last three days we were seeing a sharp increase in quantities of radon, over and above the level that is safe."
Yet, Mr. Bertolaso is steadfastly standing his ground, stating, "(There is) no possibility of making any predictions on earthquakes. This is a fact in the world's scientific community."
Mr. Boschi also denounced the claims, stating, "Every time there is an earthquake there are people who claim to have predicted it. As far as I know nobody predicted this earthquake with precision. It is not possible to predict earthquakes."
He blames Italy's culture, stating, "We have earthquakes but then we forget and do nothing. It's not in our culture to take precautions or build in an appropriate way in areas where there could be strong earthquakes."
Among the internationally community, some seismologists are backing the government's view. Most current earthquake detection systems are designed either to predict long-term probabilities, or to detect a major quake seconds before its happening, not months or weeks before. States Ross Stein, a geophysicist at the U.S. Geological Survey in California, "You can always find individual cases where one of those phenomena has preceded an earthquake but they're not reliable."
However, just when you think the claims can be laid to rest, he adds that there is evidence that trapped gases "played a role" in the major earthquake in the Italian region of Umbria in 1997. He adds that while he doubts the method, that radon-based detection could one day be used if shown to be accurate.