Opinion: Scientific notice to court following the White Island disaster

A scientific agency has pleaded guilty not to be charged with the 2019 White Island / Whakaari volcanic disaster. Should scientists be held responsible for inadequately communicating the risk of an impending outbreak?

from John’s mother, Ph.D., Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences and Professor of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University

Quote: Mutter, J., 2021, Opinion: Scientific communication on the process after the White Island disaster, Temblor, http://doi.org/10.32858/temblor.214

Not again.

This time it’s New Zealand and a volcano, not an earthquake in Italy.

White Island volcano (also known by its Maori name Whakaari), one of New Zealand’s most active volcanoes, erupted in December 2019, killing 22 people and injuring another 25. many were burned by super-hot volcanic sulphurous ash that they may never fully recover from.

In November 2020, WorkSafe New Zealand indicted ten organizations and three individuals over their roles in the tragedy. The defendants were charged with violating various sections of New Zealand’s Health and Safety Act. The defendants include government agencies, GNS Science, and the National Emergency Management Agency.

The victims of the eruption were tourists and their guides who came to the island to get close to an active volcano. Maybe they knew it was active. After all, the pleasure of being and surviving in an exotic and dangerous place to show photos and retelling the experience can be part of the appeal to tourists. But apparently they didn’t know how active it was.

Should they have? How could they Should someone have told them?

Aerial view of Whakaari volcano. Photo credit: uphillblok (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Whakaari is clearly active

Whakaari is the burgeoning part of an undersea volcano that grows up from the ocean floor. Nobody lives or sleeps on the periphery of the volcano, even though it is grassy and has water. The sulfur mines once operated on the island were abandoned in the 1930s after several fatal accidents. Some destroyed mining structures are still visible. Excursion boats moor on a rough pier that take tourists to the volcano for day trips.

The volcanoes that form near New Zealand’s North Island are not shield volcanoes like Mt. Kilauea on the Big Island of Hawaii, where slow-flowing lava flows almost continuously from crevices. You can often walk very close to and run away from Hawaiian lava.

But Whakaari is different.

Volcanoes that form near an active tectonic convergent plate boundary are generally explosive – unpredictable. These stratovolcanoes erupt in a violent explosion of hot rock, ash, and gas.
Explosive eruptions are relatively common on Whakaari; Before the disaster of 2019, the volcano last erupted in 2016.

But who is responsible for letting people know when a volcanic eruption is happening?

GNS Science is the premier geosciences research and advisory agency in New Zealand. GeoNet, the GNS vehicle for monitoring and reporting volcanic activity in New Zealand, publishes warnings about the status of every volcano in the country. But the alarm scale, which ranges from 0 to 5, is more than a little fuzzy in definition and subject to interpretation. It is not an objective measure of risk. Warning level 2 does not mean that the volcano is twice as dangerous as level 1.

GeoNet had raised the warning level for Whakaari to 2 long before the fatal eruption.

A 2 out of 5 doesn’t sound very threatening, especially to someone unfamiliar with the nuances of the scale. Nor is the alert level a prediction of what might happen in the future. It is specifically not a prediction.

But the charges against the science authorities are not about missing predictions, they’re about missing warnings.

Rubble next to the remains of a buildingRuins of sulfur mines on Whakaari. Photo credit: nzgabriel (CC BY 2.0)

An unusual fee for a scientific agency

It is uncommon for one or more scientists to be charged in connection with a disaster, but it is not without precedent. A previous instance of a note comes to mind. In April 2009 at 3:32 a.m., a 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck L’Aquila Italy, claiming 309 lives. Most of the victims slept, may not have been aware of the shaking, and did not have time to take steps that would have saved their lives, such as getting out of their homes or under their beds.

Following the incident, Italian prosecutors on behalf of 29 surviving family members brought charges against the seven members of the Major Risks Committee, an Italian government agency whose job it was to do what its name suggests: assess major risks.

In the weeks leading up to the 6.3 magnitude quake, the area around the city of L’Aquila saw increasing seismic activity, including a staggering 4.0 magnitude quake a week before the main quake. Local residents were concerned and many slept in front of their homes for fear of a building collapse in the event of a major quake.

The Major Risks Committee was called in from Rome, 100 kilometers away, to assess the likelihood of a major earthquake. Committee members were asked to determine if the sequence of earthquakes experienced by residents were foreshocks – premonitions of an impending major quake. From a formal seismological point of view, this is a difficult thing. It’s more or less impossible. Earthquakes are unpredictable.

The committee sent mixed messages to the public. Their formal judgment was that they could not determine whether the earthquakes were foreshocks or not. That was true, but it didn’t really help the people at L’Aquila. Based on this information, what should the public do?

A member of the committee, Bernardo De Bernardinis, blushed and inexplicably said that there was no danger. Because of this, prosecutors argued that many people slept inside and died from it.

Rubble around white building with columns, roof collapsed.A government office that was destroyed by the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake. Photo credit: TheWiz83, via Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Failure to warn

Knowing if a volcano’s puffing and panting indicates an eruption is also a daunting task. It might not be as difficult to predict as an earthquake, but it’s still a big challenge.

But in neither the L’Aquila nor Whakaari cases were the scientists or their agencies actually accused of failing to predict a natural event. Although in media reports and in the minds of many seismologists, the Italian scientists were accused for precisely this. They were actually accused of criminal negligence – professional misconduct, in common parlance. The formal charge was manslaughter.

Failure to predict a natural event is almost certainly not a crime under the law in Italy, New Zealand or anywhere else. If so, hundreds of weather forecasters would be in jail.

Is Failure to Warn a Crime?

The controversial moral philosopher Peter Singer wrote:

“If it is in our power to prevent something bad without sacrificing something of comparable moral importance, we should do it morally.”

Was it in the power of the L’Aquila Seven to prevent something bad from happening? Was it in the power of any of the defendants in New Zealand to prevent the Whakaari tragedy? It was not possible to prevent the volcano from erupting or the earth from releasing pent-up energy,
but could the deaths have been prevented?

In both cases, nothing of “comparable moral significance” was involved. Profits from tours to Whakaari are not of comparable moral importance. In Singer’s philosophical formulation, the point in court is to prevent something bad from happening “when it is in our power”.

If it is not in your power to prevent the physical seizure, which is clearly a bad thing, what then?

All a scientist can do is alert or give a happier assessment – the weekend weather looks like it’s going to be great. But if the forecaster is wrong, nothing can be blamed on him. But if the forecaster says, “Plan your outdoor wedding,” and it rains and the costly event is a chaotic disaster, you may be guilty for giving an unwise instruction. This is why it is very unusual for a TV weather report to say something so meaningful.

The seven L’Aquila were convicted. Six of the defendants had their convictions overturned. De Bernardinis was upheld on his conviction but received a suspended sentence on appeal. He had been the most harsh in his public statements. He had told people what to do.

Some seismologists remain appalled by the fact that their Italian counterparts have been charged, let alone convicted, which they still consider to be an unpredictability.

The charges in the Whakaari case are similar to those of the L’Aquila Seven. GNS Science has pleaded not guilty. No convictions have been issued yet.

An engineer, doctor, or attorney can be charged with negligent or negligent homicide. Why not people in other professions? Why not scientists? Can a scientist’s negligence lead to “something bad happening” when it is a moral duty to prevent it?

I suspect that the defendants in the Whakaari case will be exonerated – as will six of the seven L’Aquila eventually. The case will be that you just cannot tell when a volcano will erupt or when an earthquake will occur.

The tourists on Whakaari paid their money and took their chances without knowing what their chances were because no one can. They may even have signed waivers. Would they have known the alert was raised, would they have taken the tour anyway? My guess is yes they would, or most of them would. It would have been even more exciting.

Once again, it comes down to the confusing interface between science and the public. So much has been written about this tumultuous nexus that it’s hard to ponder what new to say. Litigation is unlikely to change anything. Perhaps a certain introspection about our moral responsibilities can do this.

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