Scientists Try to Counter Rome Earthquake Fear

Empty schools, semiabandoned offices, and huge traffic jams. That is the potential scenario in Rome tomorrow, as inhabitants flee the Italian capital for fear that a catastrophic earthquake will strike their city. Their concern comes in response to rumors that an obscure Italian scholar had warned years ago that Rome would be razed by a huge tremor on 11 May 2011. But geologists are trying to calm the situation, arguing that there is no scientific basis for such a prediction and pointing out that in fact the scientist in question, the self-taught Raffaele Bendandi, never actually made the forecast attributed to him.

Bendandi died in 1979 at the age of 86, having made over the course of his lifetime hundreds of predictions of earthquakes from his home in Faenza in central Italy. His strategy was to calculate the gravitational force exerted on Earth’s crust as the moon, the sun, and the planets change their position relative to one another. Rumors of his supposed 11 May prediction have been circulating for at least several months, via the Internet, through word of mouth, and in the country’s media, with apprehension only increasing as the date draws near. Indeed, according to press reports, there will be as many as 20% more public workers in Rome taking the day off tomorrow as compared with the same day last year.

Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics and Vulcanology (INGV) has attempted to quell the public’s fear by posting educational videos on YouTube and will hold an open day tomorrow at its offices in Rome where people can chat with geologists and visit the institute’s seismic monitoring center. INGV points out that scientists are not able to predict when and where an earthquake of a certain magnitude will strike; the best they can do is to determine the probability that a quake of a given size will occur within a certain geographical area within a certain time frame. The agency adds that Bendandi never had his work published in peer-reviewed journals and maintains in any case that the gravitational forces exerted by the bodies of the solar system are far too small to cause earthquakes.

Gabriele Scarascia Mugnozza, director of the department of earth sciences at Sapienza University of Rome, expresses similar sentiments. He says it is “impossible to predict an earthquake in Rome tomorrow,” adding that Rome is any case an area of relatively low seismic hazard. He points out that the tremors that have been experienced in Rome in centuries past (with one in the 4th century leading to the partial collapse of the Colosseum) have had their epicenters in the Apennine Mountains to the east of Rome and not, as the rumors claim will happen, in the capital itself.

In contrast to his colleagues at INGV, Cristiano Fidani, a physicist at the University of Perugia, believes that Bendandi’s work merits further investigation. Having studied Bendandi’s papers, he says there is clear documentary evidence that Bendandi did correctly predict the occurrence of an earthquake in central Italy in January 1924, and he argues that INGV has been too ready to dismiss Bendandi’s astronomical arguments. But he does agree that there is no basis for thinking there will be an earthquake tomorrow, pointing out that the person in charge of the organization set up to look after Bendandi’s papers and notes, Paola Lagorio, has publicly denied that Bendandi made any reference to an earthquake in Rome on the 11 May date (indeed, Fidani says, he appears not to have made any predictions beyond 1977).

Scarascia Mugnozza will also hold a meeting on earthquakes tomorrow, in his department at La Sapienza. He hopes to convince secondary school students and other members of the public that the best way of dealing with potential earthquakes is through prevention, notably improved construction techniques, and detailed geological investigations rather than through pinpoint prediction. But he admits that changing the perception of the population as a whole will not be easy.