It's been widely reported that an Italian seismologist predicted today's earthquake. But there's debate within the scientific community as to whether that's really possible. Anchor Lisa Mullins speaks with Nano Seeber, a seismologist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University.
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LISA MULLINS: An Italian seismologist predicted the earthquake. Giampaolo Giuliani says it was a simple matter of assessing the evidence.
GIAMPAOLO GIULIANI: It's false that earthquakes cannot be predicted. We started registering a considerable increase in the radon level three days ago, and big increases of the radon levels signals big earthquakes.
MULLINS: And as a result of Giuliani's warning, vans with loudspeakers drove around L'Aquila. They advised local people to evacuate their homes. But a spokesman for the Italian Civil Protection Agency, Agostino Miozzo, says that it was impossible to evacuate thousands of people based on â€œrumorsâ€ of an earthquake. That's what Miozzo said they were â€“ just rumors.
MIOZZO: This is an earthquake area, but we cannot predict that an earthquake will happen in that time, at that hour, on that magnitude.
MULLINS: Again, that's Agostino Miozzo of the Italian Civil Protection Agency. Nano Seeber is a seismologist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University. What is the success rate of predicting earthquakes?
NANO SEEBER: So far, overall, not too good, I would say. Back in the â€˜70s, we were much more optimistic about the possibility of predicting earthquakes.
MULLINS: Last year â€“ tell me if you have a different figure on this â€“ but I understand there was something like 2,000 earthquakes in various parts of Italy in varying degrees of strength. If you had heard that van with the warning, as the van was driving around telling people to leave L'Aquila, would you have left?
SEEBER: Well, it depends how often the van comes around saying that an earthquake is coming. Yes, there are many earthquakes, and of course most of them are small. I think there are also many people that claim to be able to predict earthquakes.
MULLINS: How would you decide, then, who to trust? I mean, in this --
SEEBER: Well, you have to look at the evidence and you have to look at the history of this particular method.
MULLINS: Okay. So the evidence in this case, if it's based on an increase in radon gas levels, what's the significance of that?
SEEBER: Radon emission from the earth was one of the measurements that were made in Southern California for example back in the â€˜70s. And later, they were abandoned because evidence suggested that these measurements were not very helpful. Now, in this particular case, there might be a special connection between gas underground and movement on the fault that perhaps in this case radon could be useful. But you have to evaluate the specifics and I don't know the specifics on this fault.
MULLINS: So does the Italian seismologist Giampaolo Giuliani, who sounded the alarm telling people that they should evacuate, who was eventually told to take that information off the internet, where he had posted his findings â€“ he says, â€œRight now, there are people who have to apologize to me.â€ Do you think he's owed an apology?
SEEBER: I don't know the specifics. However, the issue of predicting an earthquake is something that needs to be organized. A wrong prediction can create a disaster itself. So you need to have a process by which a scientist can proclaim that they have a prediction, and this prediction will be examined by a group of people which will be impartial and should be as attentive to all statements as possible. But I don't think scientists should go around, shoot into the air statements about future earthquakes without having a consensus by the community.
MULLINS: Have you ever experienced an earthquake yourself?
SEEBER: Yes. I've experienced an earthquake, but never where the walls of the house I was in would collapse. I've been in many earthquake circumstances just after the occurrence, so I have a sense of what it must mean to find oneself in the midst of an earthquake in the middle of the night, waking up without any lights and full of dust and screams all around you. It must be a really horrible experience.
MULLINS: You witnessed an earthquake. You've been on the scene of earthquakes after they have transpired. Is there anything that a seismologist like you could learn after the fact about predicting an earthquake?
SEEBER: Definitely. The study of a large earthquake is critical. Earthquakes leave a signature not only among humans, unfortunately, but also in geology. Whenever an earthquake occurs, you have a change in shape of the earth's surface, so you can study earthquakes from geological data as well. We have a double relationship to earthquakes. On the one hand, we are eager and almost happy when they happen because they give us new data. We can study them and write papers. On the other hand, we know that earthquakes are terrible things that kill a lot of people and create tremendous havoc. It's kind of a psychologically black-and-white issue for us.
MULLINS: All right. Thank you very much. Nano Seeber, a seismologist at Columbia University in New York. Thank you again.