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Inside Italy’s Thriving Market for Earthquake Pseudoscience

Legitimate fears of deadly earthquakes are fueling a cottage industry of bogus detectors and predictors.

by Federico Formica
Apr 16 2017, 1:00pm

The town of Arquata del Tronto, partially destroyed by August 24 earthquake. Image: Federico Formica

Earthquakes are a fact of life in central Italy. On January 18, the area was hit by five shocks, all with magnitudes stronger than 5.0 on the Richter scale in a single day. People who live in the regions of Abruzzo, Marche, Lazio and Emilia Romagna coexist with the threat of earthquakes. Eight times over the last ten years, quakes stronger than 5.5 magnitude shook the faults of the Apennine Mountains.

In a country where most buildings were built centuries ago, without any quake-proofing techniques, these magnitudes are enough to destroy whole towns. The lives of many Italians hang by a thread, as approximately 24 million people live in high seismic hazard areas. Fear of earthquakes is innate in this region.

This fear has made some Italians more inclined to believe in scientifically suspect theories in the hopes that someone, anyone, will predict the next time the earth shakes. Even regular citizens are starting to hunt for ways to predict earthquakes.

"The scientific community is not committed enough to studying earthquake prediction models."

"The scientific community is not committed enough to studying earthquake prediction models. So pseudo-scientists are occupying an empty space that science has left. And that people can cause disasters," said Antonio Piersanti, a seismologist at INGV, the Italian Institute for Geophysics and Volcanology.

Piersanti believes that eventually we'll be able to accurately predict quakes with plenty of lead time, but many of his colleagues don't share the same opinion. This leaves the public with a clear, but not so reassuring message: No one can predict quakes.

In Italy, the relationship between earthquake scientists and the public is an uneasy one. In 2009, the town of L'Aquila was experiencing tremors. A panel of experts reassured the community that no larger shocks were on the way—but days later, an earthquake struck in the middle of the night, making houses, public offices, part of an hospital and an entire dormitory for students collapse, killing 309 people. Six people were convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to six years in prison. The sentence was overturned two years later for all but Bernardo De Bernardinis, who had been deputy head of the Italian Protezione Civile at the time.

Fear and precedents like this add fuel to theorists' fire—especially on the web.

Stefano Calandra and Stefano Gagliardi, founders of the Facebook group called "Earthquake Forecast - the Gravitational Theory," which has 30,000 followers, call themselves "not-inattentive citizens." Calandra and Gagliardi claim that astronomy can help us predict an earthquake by studying the position of the Earth relative to the moon and other planets in our solar system. 

Solar System planet alignment simulator

The alignment of Moon and other three planets of our solar system during the earthquake of August 24. Image: Earthquakes Forecast/Facebook

The theory is built, at least somewhat, on a scientifically sound premise: Research has suggested that gravitational force from the moon can influence seismogenic faults. But the moon is much closer to us than other planets, making it unlikely that the other planets can also trigger seismic events.

"Gravitational influence of planets is irrelevant if compared to those of [the] moon and Sun. Venus has a tidal force 30,000 times weaker than Moon's while Jupiter, the biggest planet in our solar system, 200,000 times weaker," geologist Piero Farabollini told Motherboard in a phone interview. Farabollini is professor at Camerino University, only 43 miles away from the epicenter of the August quake.

"It's obvious that the position of stars and motion cannot be used to develop a predictive model," Piersanti explained.

Calandra told Motherboard via Facebook message that while he and his colleague's focus on astronomy isn't widely accepted, the "planets' alignment with Earth have a 80-percent relevance with earthquakes" and that this is "certain at this point."

"We never made a direct correlation among planets' mass, their gravitational forces and Earth's mantle," Calandra explained to Motherboard via Facebook Messenger. "Einstein's gravitational waves or imbalances caused by electromagnetic waves could be involved. Basically we don't know the physical cause because we are not mathematicians, neither geologists nor graduated scientists. We are independent researchers, and we promote an interdisciplinary approach."

"It's obvious that the position of stars and motion cannot be used to develop a predictive model."

There are, in fact, phenomena known as "seismic precursors," which is how seismologists refer to every natural event that happens before the earth moves, even occasionally, such as radon emissions and seismic clouds. But these aren't necessarily earthquake predictors.

"Many people, sometimes in good faith, sometimes not, make a lot of confusion between an event that can contribute to trigger an earthquake and the possibility to predict that earthquake," Piersanti said. "These are completely different logical assertions."

Many people, for example, are convinced that streaked clouds, known as "seismic clouds," forewarned the strong quakes of August 24, 2016.

According to a Chinese study published in 2008, clouds sometimes form abnormal shapes above active faults due to thermal anomalies. These clouds were observed two months before a 6.0 magnitude earthquake occurred in Iran in 2006. The study claimed that strange clouds indicate "the rough area" of the future quake. A different theory claims that odd cloud formations (like a backbone) could be caused by atmospheric ionization, due to charged ions coming from stressed rocks underground.

Satellite imagery

A satellite image of central Italy taken few hours before the earthquake of August 24. Image: NASA/EarthquakeForecast/Facebook

Among the more reliable seismic precursors is radon, a radioactive gas that comes from the subsoil. Research has shown that radon can emanate from the ground at abnormally high levels before an earthquake—in fact, the most recent paper on the subject was published in the weeks after the August 2016 quake.

Nevertheless, radon is only a precursor in a handful of quakes out of the thousands each year. "That field of research is quite advanced, although we are very far from being able to predict an earthquake this way," Piersanti said. "While we only have few observations about seismic clouds before a shake, and [they're] not so reliable."

"Researching seismic precursors—it's a path to walk, but we need to reach a better grade of reliability. We'll need 50 years more, at least," said Farabollini, the geologist.

But people are impatient, and years of studies yet to come are no guarantee of immediate safety. So perhaps it's not surprising that consumer systems like "Sismalarm," a smart-home device produced by San Marino-based company Guardian, have become quite well-known in Italy.

Guardian claims on its website that Sismalarm can detect an initial wave of tremors—undetectable to humans—and ring an alarm before the second wave, the strong and dangerous one, hits.

"Earthquake prediction is like cancer treatment in the 60s."

On July 9, 2015, the Italian Antitrust Authority fined the company for "unfair commercial practices" for persuading consumers "to believe that the device can forewarn a seismic event with consistent advance, sufficient to get to safety, although it's not true." The court ordered Guardian to pay 40,000 euros.

After an appeal, on July 15 of last year the administrative court of Lazio, known as TAR, partially overturned the decision. The court ruled that while Guardian's product didn't help save lives, its ads only informed consumers about the product as a warning device, rather than a way to prevent deaths. The court also reduced the fine to 10,000 euros.

Although Sismalarm is the most famous device, it's not the only one. Italian company GR Plast sells Alert Sisma, an "earthquake detector" which claims to have a similar operating principle.

Sinkhole in Italy

The October 30 earthquake produced many geological effects on a large area. Sinkholes are one of those. Image: Federico Formica/Motherboard

Scientists that criticize these systems say they're useless.

"If one lives at few miles from the epicenter, there's too little time between the first and the second wave. However, not enough to start any safety procedure" Farabollini wrote in an email to Motherboard. "Anyway, if one lives far from the epicenter, probably it's the distance itself that keeps you safe."

"After accurate checks, many companies and investors evaluated our technology as valid, performing, and thoroughly innovative," Maurizio Taormina, CEO of Guardian, told Motherboard via email. Taormina added that last seismic sequence in Italy provided "very interesting data that can guarantee the adoption of safety procedures by the authorities."

Though devices like Sismalarm and Alert Sisma are supposed to be early warning systems, neither can predict an earthquake. But forward-thinking scientists are working hard to come up with a better solution.

"Earthquake prediction is like cancer treatment in the 60s," Piersanti said. "Fifty years ago many scientists didn't believe we had achieved the survival rates we have today for many forms of cancer. Things started to change when everyone started to believe it was possible and investments raised."

"Earthquake prediction it's very similar," he added. "It seems so remote today, but it's potentially achievable."

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