As central Italy continues to dig out from a devastating earthquake that killed more than 150 people, the country is abuzz with questions about whether an Italian scientist predicted the deadly event and had his warning silenced by local officials. But little about this affair is clear, perhaps not surprising given the chaos of the postquake situation. And several veteran seismologists and earth scientists who spoke with ScienceInsider said they were not familiar with the now-famous researcher or his work, and they expressed skepticism that his much-publicized measurements of radon gas offered a reliable predictive technique for earthquakes.
The basics have been summed up in many media reports, although the English-language accounts seem to depend largely on translations of Italian media reports. The Los Angeles Times offers details of Giampaolo Gioacchino Giuliani’s apparent warnings several weeks ago of an upcoming earthquake in the region.
But who is Giuliani? He works at the National Laboratories at Gran Sasso, though he’s been variously identified as a seismologist, physicist, and technician at Italy’s National Institute of Nuclear Physics, not Gran Sasso's National Institute of Nuclear Physics. “He is a technician in a collaboration with Gran Sasso, which is based in Turin—and his work on earthquakes is a hobby, nothing to do with the research project here,” that institute's director told Nature, who said the research center has been a “bit embarrassed” by the media reports.
Italian news media have reported that Giuliani has been developing his radon detector/earthquake predictor for several years in association with other researchers and with CAEN, a company that supplies equipment for physics research.
According to translations of other Italian media and discussions with Italian researchers who know Giuliani, he has been studying the correlation between earthquakes and radon, a gas emitted by Earth’s crust. He has reportedly claimed to develop radon-monitoring devices that can give the precise location and magnitude of a future quake, hours or more before it occurs. One such machine is reportedly located with Gran Sasso, whereas the others are reportedly in nearby Abruzzo, where the earthquake hit on Monday.
There has certainly been decades of research into radon and earthquake predictability, particularly in Japan, but interest in the topic has dwindled, as it has for many alleged clues that might predict quakes. Paul G. Silver of the Carnegie Institution of Washington in Washington, D.C., a seismologist who co-authored a review on earthquake prediction in 1976, offered this reaction to the Italian quake and Giuliani: “It is highly unlikely that radon research has gotten to the stage where radon could be used as the basis for making an actual prediction. We still do not yet know how to predict earthquakes, so I think his warnings were treated properly. Some news outlets reported increased seismic activity over the past few weeks in the area. If true, this would still not be sufficient to issue a warning, given our present state of knowledge. To my knowledge, neither radon nor any other kind of observation [other than foreshocks] has been shown to be a reliable precursor of earthquakes. Of course, it would be useful to see his observations."
And Ian Main, a University of Edinburgh seismologist who chaired an influential online debate a decade ago on whether earthquakes can be predicted, says that radon has been considered a “marginal [quake] precursor. It hasn’t stood up in a statistical way.”
Paolo Diodati of the University of Perugia, who also works at Gran Sasso, thinks Giuliani is wrong to support the idea that earthquakes can be predicted. However, Diodati thinks Giuliani’s findings might deserve the attention of the scientific community. And he was critical of how the local officials handled the situation. "If a researcher is put under investigation after he informed the public about what his data are telling him, scientists will feel intimidated and never take the risk of launching any alarm again."
In contrast, Francesco Mulargia, a seismologist at the University of Bologna who has written extensively on earthquake predictions, was more dismissive, saying in an e-mail:
“Radon as a precursor has been quite extensively studied in the last three decades and did not stand the validation with the Scientific Method. This led to the widely accepted conclusion that it cannot be proposed as a reliable earthquake precursor. The guy who made the prediction is unknown to the seismological community. Neither his method of analysis nor his data have ever been published in a peer reviewed journal or presented at a scientific conference. I am afraid that under these terms they can hardly be taken into any serious consideration.”
Will the Italian earthquake revive the stalled field of earthquake predictability? Few seem to think so. “It’s difficult to draw conclusions from any one case,” notes Main.