As per a news item in the Indian Express dated 23 October 2012, an Italian court convicted seven people to six years’ imprisonment for failing to give warnings of a 6.3 magnitude earthquake that killed more than 300 people in central Italy on 6 April 2009. Those convicted were prominent seismologists, geologists and disaster experts. They were accused of giving inexact, incomplete and contradictory information and ignoring the small tremors felt by local residents prior to the earthquake.

The verdict is sure to be challenged in a higher court and the accused may eventually be acquitted. However, it raises important and fundamental issues, legal, ethical and professional. In many countries including India, operational aspects of seismology and meteorology are handled by a single official agency, so the issues are common to both the branches of geoscience.

Most meteorological agencies the world over are run by the government with public funding, although they do earn a little by charging for some of their services. The scientists who work for them are therefore accountable and responsible to the public.

Compared to the simple things they had a century ago, meteorologists now have million-dollar supercomputers, models and satellites at their disposal and these are all funded by the public. And yet, there has been no visible quantum jump in the science or the forecasts. Meteorologists have always been the subject of jokes and cartoons, but that apart, today’s public is not an admirer of the meteorological services, to say it softly. People are certainly going to be increasingly demanding in future and would expect value for money. In a sense, the Italian court verdict should be considered as some indicator of current public thinking about the inadequacy of services, both in seismology and meteorology.

Some of the sins of commission and omission of which meteorologists can be found guilty are the following:

overprediction or raising a scare,

underprediction or keeping a low profile,

using incomprehensible language,

covering a wide range of possible situations to reduce the chances of going wrong,

making bold statements when the confidence level is low,

not taking a clear stand even when the confidence level is high,

not taking the blame for wrong forecasts, but blaming the weather itself for not behaving well,

speculating about so distant a future that nobody alive today will be able to verify.

The court verdict should be a cause for introspection…!

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