2009 L'Aquila Earthquake

Amber Kumpf, Mathematics and Physical Sciences, Muskegon Community College

Summary

L'Aquila is a city in central Italy with a population of around 68,000 people. The medieval city has a rich cultural history ranging from ancient walls, churches, and a commune to modern day theaters, a film school, a symphony, and other aspects of a university town and valley rich with ski resorts. However, along with its cultural history, the city also has a history of significant earthquakes.

On April 6th, 2009, a magnitude 6.3 earthquake struck the city killing around 300 people, injuring 1,500 and leaving tens of thousands homeless.

Even though previous earthquakes had killed people in far greater numbers (3,000+ in 1703; 6,000+ in 1786), the city as a whole was surprised by the events surrounding and leading up to the 2009 earthquake. So much so that after a lengthy trial, on October 22, 2012, four scientists, two engineers, and an ex- government official were sentenced to six years' imprisonment for their role in miscommunicating to the public the relevant risks and hazards.

Key teaching points:
  • earthquake predictability or lack thereof
  • scientists' role in communicating risk vs. government role in understanding and communicating risk vs. citizen responsibility in understanding risk
  • understanding risk from a citizen standpoint (it's easy to judge the people of L'Aquila for not knowing their local hazards, but how many students know and understand the risks associated with their own city, their own house?)

How this example is used in the classroom:
Students reenact select events leading up to and following the 2009 L'Aquila earthquake in a short play. The play is supplemented by reaction and discussion following the reveal that these scientists and govt. official have been convicted and that our play is based on a real and recent event. Continued expansion might include risk assessment for your own area along with suggestions for communicating those hazards to the public.

References

Cartlidge, E. (2012). Aftershocks in the Courtroom. Science, 338(6104), 184-188.

Hall, S. S. (2011). Scientists on trial: At fault?. Nature, 477, 264-269.

News articles/videos