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GeoEd: A risky business

In this month’s GeoEd post, Sam Illingworth explores the pitfalls of being a scientist in the public eye. Following the recent acquittal of 6 geoscientists on manslaughter charges after ‘failing’ to predict the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake, is it time we thought about improving how risk is communicated to the wider public?

At the beginning of November of this year, six Italian scientists were acquitted of manslaughter; an appeals court in L’Aquila (a medieval Italian city on the edge of the Aterno river) overturning the 2012 guilty verdicts that were originally cast against the researchers.

In their initial trial, the scientists were convicted of multiple manslaughter charges, by failing to predict the devastating earthquake, which struck at 03:32 CEST on 6 April 2009, and which was responsible for the deaths of 309 people. It has taken the past two years to acquit these six scientists, and the initial ramifications of the convictions were far reaching, with other researchers from across the globe wondering if a precedent had now been set, regarding liability for the conveyance of information.

Aerial view of the city of L'Aquila east-centre (Photo Credit: Public Domain, via Wikipedia.org)

Aerial view of the city of L’Aquila east-centre (Photo Credit: Public Domain, via Wikipedia.org)

Sadly, scientists are far from unaccustomed with judicial proceedings, from Galileo vs. the Catholic Church, to more recent examples of scientists being sued by a gym regarding injury rate statistics, or NASA being sued for trespassing on MARS. However, the recent allegations against the L’Aquila six (actually there were seven experts in total; more on this later), calls into question the fundamental belief system of accountability. If a building surveyor were to tell you that the foundations of your house were sound, yet you were later to find evidence of subsidence you would expect compensation from the surveyor. So why not also from the scientists, after all are they not too experts in their own field?

Well, for one thing, finding evidence for subsidence is far more of a precise art than trying to predict earthquakes. On the one hand you are looking for something that already exists, and on the other you are searching for something that may or may not be. In addition to this, surveyors are usually protected by professional indemnity insurance.

Are scientists adequately protected (Photo Credit: Sandstein via Wikimedia Commons)

Are scientists adequately protected (Photo Credit: Sandstein via Wikimedia Commons)

However, in the case of scientists communicating risk, is not being able to accurately predict an earthquake or a volcanic eruption really professional negligence, or is it simply to be expected given the impossibility of fully accurate predictions?

What is potentially worrying to scientists is that the line between professional negligence and unforeseen circumstance would appear to be very blurred indeed. Although, in some instances the distinction is far more clear-cut, for example the behaviour of the seventh member of the panel of experts in the L’Aquila case, Bernardo De Bernardinis. The then deputy director of the Civil Protection agency had, prior to the earthquake, advised locals to “sit back and enjoy a nice glass of Montepulciano” wine. Bernandinis was not acquitted, although his prison sentence was cut, from six to two years.

Although many might view Bernandinis as being guilty of nothing more than pompous over confidence, it is important to remember that as scientists we still have a role to inform the public as to the seriousness of any potential dangers, even if we are not ultimately to be held accountable for our inability to predict them. In other words, failing to predict a natural hazard (or other such incident) should not be seen as professional negligence, but failing to adequately inform the general public of the consequences of any potential threats, probably should be.

Of course, communicating risk goes well beyond natural disasters, and is something that many of us do when we talk about the effects of both current and predicted climate change. In these situations, scientists also regularly put themselves in the firing line, although this time often with regards to the media and pressure groups with an anti-climate change agenda.

One of the most well known examples of this was when a Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) analyst made the following, frankly horrific statement, about Penn State University climate researcher Michael Mann:

“Mann could be said to be the Jerry Sandusky of climate science, except that instead of molesting children, he has molested and tortured data in the service of politicized science.”

Dr Michael Mann: fighting the fakers (Photo Credit: Reason4Reason via Wikimedia Commons)

Dr Michael Mann: fighting the fakers (Photo Credit: Reason4Reason via Wikimedia Commons)

Dr Mann has subsequently sued the CEI, but such legal proceedings are both incredibly expensive and time consuming, and often represent a completely alien world to many scientists who are simply just doing their job.

In the US, scientists working for government or federal labs are now offered free legal counsel and support by the organization Protecting Our Employees Who Protect Our Environment (PEER). In addition to this, some scientific professions are now requiring their researchers to have professional indemnity insurance, for example in the UK, legislation was recently introduced that requires all health care scientists to have a professional indemnity arrangement in place, as a condition of their registration with the health & care professions council.

According to Jeff Ruch, the director of PEER, threatening scientists for their science “is a bully strategy,” and “bullies don’t like to be pushed back at.” Whilst the work of PEER and their contemporaries is admirable, is this a position that scientists should ever be finding themselves in? And is there anything that they could be doing to avoid such potential pitfalls?

In some cases, these pitfalls could be avoided by a more careful consideration of how to communicate risk, by explaining to the general public that there are many uncertainties associated with the calculations and predictions that are being made. However, I think that this is something that many scientists are already reasonably adept at, and if scientists are guilty of anything it is sometimes of being overcautious with their predictions, or of waiting to comment until they are absolutely 99.9% sure (with the obligatory 0.1% margin of error).

Media and science communication training can help scientists prepare for how to deliver their research and advice in potentially alien and hostile arenas, but there will always be instances where people have a set agenda to follow at any cost.

There may well be a public perception that scientists failing to predict natural disasters, or underdetermining a certain problem, are like the proverbial bad workmen who blame their tools. However, in trying to communicate risk I think that it might well be a case of “don’t shoot the messenger,” even if it turns out that they have no message to convey.

By Sam Illingworth, Lecturer, Manchester Metropolitan University

 

Imaggeo on Mondays: Lusi from the sky with drones

Lusi from the sky with drones. Credit: Giovanni Romeo, Adriano Mazzini and Giuseppe Di Stefano. (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Lusi from the sky with drones. Credit: Giovanni Romeo, Adriano Mazzini and Giuseppe Di Stefano. (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

The picture shows a spectacular aerial view of a sunset over the Lusi mud eruption in East Java, Indonesia. Here thousands of cubic meters of mud, are spewed out every day from a 100 m sized central crater. Since the initial eruption of the volcano in 2006, following a 6.3 M earthquake, a surface of about 7 km2 has been covered by boiling mud, which has buried more than 12 villages and resulted in the displacement of 40,000 people.

Monitoring Lusi is part of multidisciplinary project called Lusi Lab, which focuses on the study of the behaviour of this incredible mud eruption. Many unsolved questions remain: What lies beneath Lusi? Research focuses on trying to ascertain what triggers the mud eruptions. One key question is whether Lusi is truly a mud volcano, or is it connected to a hydrothermal system linked to the nearby Arjuno Welirang volcanic complex? Lusi erupts mud, water, gas and clasts in pulses and scientists do not fully understand how the intermittent activity is linked to the seismic activity of the neighbouring volcanic complex. For the purposes of hazard and risk management, much speculation has focused on how long is the activity at Lusi is likely to last.

In an attempt to shed light on some of these questions the Lusi Lab team continually collect water and gas samples from the volcano, as well as assessing the seismic activity in the region ( including the neighbouring volcanic arc) through the deployment of a network of seismometers. This data gathering effort is further supported by a UAV prototype: The Lusi drone (assembled and equipped by INGV, Rome). The drone is able to access extreme environments and can provide photogrammetric and thermal images, gas and mud sampling and contact temperature measurements. A permanently installed Gopro Hero3 camera provides a continuous recording over the mud flows during flights, including this week’s Imaggeo on Mondays image.  Gas and water samples collected from the crater site revealed that Lusi is part of a Sedimentary Hosted Geothermal System (SHGT) that connects Lusi with the neighbouring Arjuno Welirang volcanic complex that can be seen in the background of the picture. The eruption site is continuously fed by new surges of geothermal fluids released from the volcano in particular after frequent seismic events occurring in the subduction zone in southern Java.

By Laura Roberts Artal and Giovanni Romeo 

To learn more about Lusi take a look at this paper:

Mazzini, A., Etiope, G., and Svensen, H. (2012), A new hydrothermal scenario for the 2006 Lusi eruption, Indonesia. Insights from gas geochemistry: Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 317-318. 0, 305-318.

If you pre-register for the 2015 General Assembly (Vienna, 12 – 17 April), you can take part in our annual photo competition! From 1 February up until 1 March, every participant pre-registered for the General Assembly can submit up three original photos and one moving image related to the Earth, planetary, and space sciences in competition for free registration to next year’s General Assembly!  These can include fantastic field photos, a stunning shot of your favourite thin section, what you’ve captured out on holiday or under the electron microscope – if it’s geoscientific, it fits the bill. Find out more about how to take part at http://imaggeo.egu.eu/photo-contest/information/.

Imaggeo on Mondays: Wadis in a war zone

The range of challenges scientists face when carrying out Earth science research in the field are vast. However, the story behind Vincent Felde’s, a PhD candidate at Giessen University, image of the wadi, is truly remarkable and highlights how geoscientific research is not limited by borders or conflict.

Wadi Nizzana (the Arabic term used to describe valleys that remain dry except during times of heavy rainfall), meanders along the Israeli Egyptian border, from the SE to the NW. It is part of the one of the largest hydrological systems in the coastal plain of the Sinai Peninsula; belonging to the NW Negev, which drains the Negev Highlands before disappearing in the Sinai dune fields. The area also comprises the Sinai-Negev dune field, covering in excess of 12,000 km2 (Tsoar et al. 2008). The landscape is split by the political border between Egypt and Israel.

Shrinking Wadi Sediments. Credit: Vincent Felde (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Shrinking Wadi Sediments. Credit: Vincent Felde (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

The wadi is in fact not the focus of Vincent’s PhD research. His interest lies in biological soil crusts (BSCs: a complex community of blue and green algae, fungi, bacteria, lichens and bryophytes that are living in the uppermost mm to cm of the soil), which form on the sand dunes of the northwestern Negev Desert of Israel. BSCs stabilise the formerly mobile sand dunes, thereby enabling soil formation (pedogenic processes) and facilitating vascular plant establishment that combats desertification.

Vincent’s northern most research site is also located extremely close to the Gaza Strip meaning gaining access to the sites and ensuring security can be very challenging. Usually reaching the site means taking a boarder road, having asked for permission at the local army unit that secures/patrols this region first. “So it is always more or less a matter of luck, whether or not we can actually enter our experimental sites”, explains Vincent. Sometimes, an army escort is required.

On a particular trip the army had received intelligence indicating terrorist activities in the Sinai peninsula, meaning Vincent and the research team were denied access to their research sites via the boarder road, as there was a threat of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) along the road. Instead, they took a route on foot, which involved carrying all their equipment, over the Sinai-Negev dune field. This also involved crossing the parched wadi Nizzana, giving Vincent the opportunity to capture it in this stunning image.

By Laura Roberts Artal and Vincent Felde

References

Tsoar et al. (2008) Formation and Geomorphology of the North-Western Negev Sand Dunes. In: Ecological Studies 200. Breckle, Yair, Veste (eds) Arid Dune Ecosystems. The Nizzana Sands in the Negev Desert.

If you pre-register for the 2015 General Assembly (Vienna, 12 – 17 April), you can take part in our annual photo competition! From 1 February up until 1 March, every participant pre-registered for the General Assembly can submit up three original photos and one moving image related to the Earth, planetary, and space sciences in competition for free registration to next year’s General Assembly!  These can include fantastic field photos, a stunning shot of your favourite thin section, what you’ve captured out on holiday or under the electron microscope – if it’s geoscientific, it fits the bill. Find out more about how to take part at http://imaggeo.egu.eu/photo-contest/information/.

Launching the new EGU Blogs!

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Screenshot of the new EGU Blogs webpage.

Welcome to the new home of the EGU Blogs! Today we are proudly launching a new webpage which now houses all the EGU blogs in one place. We have redesigned the website to give the blogs a more modern layout and have implemented a fully responsive page design. This means the new blogs website adapts to the visitor’s screen size and looks good on any device (smartphones, tablets, laptops or desktops). In addition to the their new look, the Blogs have also been expanded to include news from some of the EGU scientific Divisions. In their new webpage you will continue to find your old favourites, including the Union’s official blog, GeoLog, as well as our established blog network.

As well as sharing information about the latest updates, events, and activities within the scientific Divisions of the EGU, the new Division blogs inform readers about the latest research being undertaken in each field. Currently six Divisions are represented in the EGU Blogs but expect more to join in the future. For now, look forward to reading about climate and cryospheric sciences, in addition to news from the Geodesy and Geomorphology Division. The former blog of the Seismology Division, Seismoblog, has been incorporated in to the Division Blogs. G-Soil, which previously had its home over with the network blogs is now known as Soil System Sciences Blog and now also forms part of the Division Blogs.

The network blogs put complex scientific research into context, sharing findings to a much wider audience. The research fields covered by the network bloggers span almost all aspects of the Earth Sciences from mineralogy, geochemistry, palaeontology, geoscience in global development, environmental geoscience, volcanology as well as atmospheric and Quaternary science.

From GeoLog you can continue to expect frequent information about the Union and its activities, particularly its General Assembly. The regular features include Imaggeo on Mondays, a weekly highlight of a photo from the EGU’s open-access image repository, Imaggeo; the Geosciences Column, which covers recent research in the Earth, planetary and space sciences, GeoTalk, a short Q&A with a geoscientist, and GeoEd, a series dedicated to education in the geosciences.

Despite extensive testing, as with any newly launched website, the new EGU Blogs page is bound to have some bugs and glitches. If you find any problems, please report them to the Science Communication Officer Laura Roberts. We thank  Robert Barsch for implementing the new website.

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