11 May 2011
Various news agencies (e.g. the BBC) are reporting a strange story this morning about concern in Rome over a “cataclysmic” earthquake. The reports note that a rumour has swept through the city that there will be a devastating earthquake on 11th May 2011; the result is that at least some of the population is expected to stay away from Rome on that day just in case.
The origin of the rumour appears to be an urban myth about a prediction made by Italian seismologist Raffaele Bendandi, who promoted the idea that planetary configurations play a key role in determining the occurrence of large earthquakes. Although Bendandi died in 1979, he reportedly made a prediction of a large earthquake in Rome on this day, and hence the concern.
However, of course there is no scientific basis for this prediction. Indeed, even the prediction itself is in doubt – Bendandi reportedly burnt his notes and records before he died, leaving no more than unclear, fragmentary evidence of his predictions. Scientifically-invalid stories about the role of planetary alignment on earthquakes continue to do the rounds; the last big scare was in June 2010; as usual nothing occurred of course. The frustration is that there is no data to support the idea that planetary alignments are somehow related to earthquake triggering. And even if they were, it is far from clear as to why an earthquake would occur in Italy rather than in one of the many other areas with high levels of stored earthquake strain energy. And even within Italy, the identification of Rome is particularly perplexing – the national seismic hazard map of Italy below (from here) shows that parts of country are vulnerable to earthquakes, but that Rome is not an area of particularly high seismic hazard by Italian standards:
As usual with such stories, the real issue is the distraction that this sort of pseudo-science generates. Our emphasis should continue to be on risk reduction through understanding seismic hazard, measures to increase resilience (such as the implementation of building codes), preparing potentially-affected populations and generating emergency plans for when events occur. Prediction is not the answer, even if it were possible.