By Edwin Cartlidge
In the wake of the magnitude-6.0 earthquake that killed at least 290 people in central Italy last week, scientists and government officials here have grappled with a fraught and delicate question: what to tell the public about the risk that another major quake will follow.
More than 2000 aftershocks in the region around the epicenter, a mountainous area some 100 kilometers northeast of Rome, have caused only minor damage. But more powerful tremors—which could add to the death toll in the days, weeks, or months to come—are possible, the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks (CGR) cautioned in a report produced on Thursday. The report mentioned that some past earthquakes in Italy were followed by equally strong quakes not much later.
How to communicate such risks to a jittery population has become a perilous issue for scientists on the commission and officials at Italy's Civil Protection Department (DPC) after the controversy that erupted when a similar earthquake struck in 2009 in the town of L’Aquila, just 40 kilometers south of the epicenter of last week's event. A year after that tremor, Italian prosecutors charged six scientists and a public official with falsely assuring L’Aquila’s residents that a quake was unlikely, just days before it struck and killed 309 people.