Dal Guardian del 5 aprule questo ritratto di Giampaolo Giuliani, il tecnico abruzzese che aveva previsto il terremoto dell’Aquila e che non era stato creduto. Dimenticato dai media italiani, si scopre ora che Giuliani è stato invitato a San Francisco per esporre i suoi metodi di rilevazione sismica…
The man who predicted an earthquake
- guardian.co.uk, Monday 5 April 2010 20.30 BST
- Article history
Two horrifying earthquakes in quick succession, in Haiti and Chile, had begun to obscure memories of another such disaster that happened exactly a year ago today: the devastation of the medieval city of L’Aquila, and 50 nearby villages, in Italy‘s mountainous Abruzzo province. Until, that is, news of some toads that “predicted” the disaster emerged via the pages of the Journal of Zoology.
Last week, reports reached the British press that a colony of common toads in a lake 70km away had somehow foreseen the L’Aquila quake. On a routine toad study, Dr Rachel Grant of the Open University noticed that 96% of this large and actively breeding colony had suddenly disappeared. Five days later the earthquake struck, after which the toads did not reappear for a further five days. According to Grant: “Our findings suggest that toads are able to detect pre-seismic cues, such as the release of gases and charged particles, and use these as a form of early warning system.”
As the events of the past year have shown, no factor should go uninvestigated in the quest to find a reliable predictor of earthquake activity. And while the toads attracted much coverage, the L’Aquila quake had already brought to prominence another more articulate, if also contentious, predictor: Giampaolo Giuliani, a scientific technician working near L’Aquila who for years had fought to be taken seriously. Then, at 3.32am on 6 April 2009, disaster struck the city in which he and his family lived.
Amid a sudden roaring noise, the ground bucked with violent tremors for 22 devastating seconds. In the dust-choked darkness, stunned survivors groped through the rubble as aftershocks added to their confusion. The emergency services – though not on red alert – arrived very quickly, bringing expertise, special equipment and 5,000 body bags. Within days it was established that 307 people were dead, 1,500 injured, and 80,000 homeless.
Giuliani was as shocked as any other survivor. Not by the fact of the earthquake, because he had seen that coming, but by its power and the extent of the damage. He had expected something measuring around 4 on the Richter scale, but the quake had measured 6.3, which is 1,000 times more powerful. (In comparison, Haiti measured 7.0 and Chile 8.8.)
For several days, Giuliani had been watching with mounting anxiety as his four radometer stations, placed in and around L’Aquila, showed very high and rising levels of radon gas emissions from the ground. By Sunday 5 April, he was convinced that within 24 hours there would be a quake – but he could not raise a public alarm. He was under an injunction, served a week earlier, that forbade him to do so on the grounds that his predictions would spread unfounded panic.
Privately, that fateful evening, Giuliani phoned urgent warnings to relatives, friends and colleagues. Finally, he lay down fully clothed with his wife and two daughters, leaving the windows and doors wide open for a quick exit. A couple of hours later, they fled outside as the quake hit.
The family’s modest concrete villa survived intact, but for the next seven months they would sleep in a camper van to allay their youngest daughter’s fears. Their other house, in a nearby village, was reduced to rubble but fortunately, Giuliani’s eldest son, who lived there, was away in Rome.
The quake had also put three of Giuliani’s precious radometers out of action. As he set about fixing them, he raged against the authorities who had denied him funding, sneered at the scientific quality of his research, and invoked the law to gag his predictions. Finally, in a flash of temper, he publicly demanded an apology – but didn’t get one.
Italy is the most geologically volatile area in Europe, with four active volcanoes, growing mountains, and lots of earthquakes. (L’Aquila had previously been devastated in 1349, 1461, 1703 and 1915, when the death toll was 30,000.) The centre of Italy’s earthquake expertise is the National Institute of Geophysics and Vulcanology, headed by Dr Enzo Bosci, with its headquarters in Rome. The institute also has a major laboratory offshoot just outside L’Aquila, on the flank of Gran Sasso mountain, which is connected with the National Institute of Nuclear Physics, located deep inside it. This is where Giuliani was employed throughout the 1990s as a lab technician, working on instruments for astrophysical studies of (for example) cosmic rays.
In 1999, Giuliani first heard about radon gas anomalies that had been observed by Russian scientists just before an earthquake in eastern Turkey. This fired his interest so much that he transferred out of the mountain to the geophysics lab, hoping to research the subject. In status, however, he remained a technician rather than a fully fledged research scientist.
By this time, the Italian government had begun pouring a lot of money into how to protect against earthquakes, and how to predict them. Anti-seismic building regulations were tightened; the number of seismographs (which measure and record earthquake tremors) was quadrupled; and the interior ministry sprouted two new organs: the Protezione Civile, a nationwide disaster response organisation, and a committee designed to make quick decisions called the High Risk Commission, which included Dr Bosci on its panel of 12 experts.
In 2003, Giuliani submitted a request to the National Institute of Geophysics and Vulcanology for project funding, to study radon gas emissions as a possible predictor for earthquakes, using one or more radometers of his own design. He met both Bosci and Guido Bertolaso, the head of the government’s interior ministry, but his proposal was rejected on the grounds it was not sufficiently scientific.
This judgment must have taken into account previous radon studies, carried out amid widespread attempts to find a reliable earthquake predictor. The Japanese, Ame
ricans, Russians and Chinese, as well as the Italians, had all tried different kinds of radometers and procedures, but failed to get definitive or consistent results. And, according to a later statement by Dr Bosci’s deputy, Dr Walter Mazzochi: “The things Giuliani has presented are at a very low level, from a scientific point of view. I didn’t see any evidence that the method could work.”
Undaunted, by 2006 Giuliani had built his first two radometers – at his own expense – and, encouraged by the test results, he re-submitted his request for funds and support. Again, it was turned down. So he continued his research in private, with only his eldest son and a couple of colleagues to back him up, as he built more radometers and linked them up into a small network.
Then, on 14 December 2008, the rise in earthquake activity around L’Aquila began with a “seismic swarm” of small tremors. These continued, off and on, into January and the subsequent months of 2009. None of the quakes did any real damage; most people going about their daily lives there did not even notice them.
But Giuliani noticed. On 27 March, he sent a message to his friend, the mayor of L’Aquila, who had helped set up one of his radometer stations in the basement of a school in the old town. Giuliani warned him there could be a quake within 24 hours. Next day there were indeed tremors – but still almost imperceptibly small, at 2.3 on the scale.
By then, however, Giuliani was detecting a greater threat to the south-east, towards the city of Sulmona, 50km from L’Aquila. Its mayor was contacted, he took the alert seriously, and sent loudspeaker vans around to warn the populace (an event wrongly associated with L’Aquila in British press reports), which duly provoked a panic. This is what worried Bosci, Bertolaso and the authorities, leading them to issue the gagging injunction which was served on Giuliani on 30 March.
The next day, L’Aquila suffered small damage from a quake of 4.2. Exactly a week later, the place lay in ruins. If the big one had struck in working hours, at 9am rather than 3.32am, experts predict that as many as 30,000 people could have died, because the worst affected structures – aside from old churches and old houses – were government buildings, schools and hospitals, which had not been built to the modern anti-seismic standards.
The mood of shock persisted for many months, as a clean-up operation of admirable energy and organisation tended to the disaster zone. The once beautiful centre of old L’Aquila was now a silent, empty, rubble-strewn wreck which only firefighters, co-ordinated by the Protezione Civile, were allowed enter. Their teams also erected the vast camps of blue tents, christened “tentopoli“, for thousands of refugees who could not bear to leave for Pescara on the coast – where Silvio Berlusconi had cheerfully and tactlessly suggested they take a holiday at the state’s expense.
Most impressive of all was the speed with which state-of-the-art, anti-seismic blocks of flats, known as “Berlusconi houses”, were built from scratch. After only seven months, 5,000 people were housed in them, with new blocks being completed every week and the tents coming down, in a race against the changing seasons.
The long summer finally broke in mid-October, and it grew cold. Heavy rain fell in L’Aquila, along with the first snow on the Apennine peaks up above. At his house, Giuliani was looking tired. He had been checking his radometer network on the computer and trying to write a report of his work in English for a learned journal. Outside, next to their bedtime camper van, his wife was plying her craft as a beautician and hairdresser with a single cheery client. The salon in which she used to work lay ruined in the town, where all commerce had ceased.
At the start of his career, Giuliani had spent some months working in Britain. He remembers going on holiday with his then girlfriend, opening the curtains in the morning to a seaview of Folkestone. His English wasn’t bad at the time, but it had been lost through disuse. Now, however, he needed it back. The American Geophysical Union had invited him to present his work to its members in San Francisco.
As it turned out, Giuliani’s presentation last December went very well. The Americans may not hold a candle to the Italians in matters of disaster management (compare New Orleans to L’Aquila), but they appreciate a free and independent spirit of scientific enquiry. The evidence Giuliani presented aroused intense interest and debate, and the AGU subsequently invited him to take part, with Chapman University and Nasa, in developing a worldwide seismic early warning system.
Furthermore, when Giuliani returned home, the Italian authorities lifted the gagging injunction against his predictions, which again proved accurate in the early months of 2010 – though this time the tremors were all mercifully small.
Where does that leave us, one year after the L’Aquila quake? It is too early to say whether Giuliani has discovered a technique of earthquake prediction that works throughout the quake-active zones of the world (and could thus be a potential lifesaver for many millions of people). Or, indeed, whether the technique can be refined to foretell the power, as well as the fact, of the tremors before they come.
Certainly, though, through his dogged determination, Giuliani has broken new scientific ground. Out of the tragedy of L’Aquila, and those disappearing toads, grows fresh hope.