Volcanoes and Society – AXA research day (1)

Volcanoes and Society – AXA research day (1)

Volcanoes and Society

A masterclass on Volcanoes and Society is exactly the sort of thing I would like, as a student, to have access to – but until May this year, I hadn’t encountered such an event. The AXA– and Cabot Institute-hosted class produced a great discussion about many aspects of how volcanoes and people interact, and made me aware that this issue needs more widespread, public conversation within the volcanology community. Below, and in the next couple of posts, I’ll consider some of the points brought up at the meeting, and hopefully continue the discussion with all of you!

AXA’s fellowships

The AXA insurance group awards fellowships under three categories, one of which is Environmental Risk. Awards are at levels ranging from PhD studentships to AXA Chair positions. Most of my PhD funding at Cambridge is through an AXA studentship, so I was lucky enough to be invited to attend the Volcanoes and Society Research Day and masterclass. This event was tied in with the launch of Professor Kathy Cashman’s AXA chair position at Bristol. It was co-hosted by AXA, Bristol’s Cabot Institute – which conducts research on the theme of ‘Living with environmental uncertainty’ – and the School of Earth Sciences at Bristol.

The reading we were sent as preparation, the discussions during Kathy’s masterclass, and the presentations in the afternoon brought up a lot of topics, so I’ll focus on those I found particularly interesting. Please do comment, as I’d love for this to stimulate further discussion!


Volcanoes and Society – Part 1

Cultural knowledge

One of the first ideas to come up during the Research Day was that of cultural knowledge. To me, this is an understanding of the environment acquired by peoples who have been exposed to a risk for many generations. We discussed how this knowledge may not be accessible to newcomers, and how the advent of modern communications and science is happening at the same time as much of this knowledge is being lost. A couple of completely different examples came to my mind.

Ethiopia – 1969 Serdo earthquake

During our field trip in Ethiopia with the Afar Rift Consortium conference this year, we visited the village of Serdo, which had been seriously damaged by earthquakes in 1969. As we looked around the site, some of the locals came and spoke to us – and it turned out that one of them, an elderly man, had been present during the main earthquake.

In Serdo. Those in front, from left: Frances, her interviewee (whose name I unfortunately don't know!), and Jamal. January 2012

Although it was a few months ago now, one of the things he told us stuck in my mind – that the casualties of the earthquake were from the more recent immigrants to the area, who had built out of stone – whereas the inhabitants of the traditional Afari houses were relatively unharmed.

Although I don’t know for sure that the building style is related to a cultural knowledge of historic earthquakes, I’d love to find out whether any link has been shown.

Ruins of buildings destroyed in the Serdo earthquake

Aotearoa-NZ and Maori mythology

A similar example mentioned by Professor Cashman was that of tapu ground in New Zealand – in particular, a possible link between much of the high ground that was tapu and in volcanic areas.  This wasn’t something I’d considered before, and another Kiwi in my office points out that tapu land is often in areas that would normally not be habitable or suitable for farming – such as steeper ground – so there may be many factors influencing tapu. However, thinking of home led me to the oral traditions surrounding volcanoes in New Zealand. In particular, I remembered an example I’d come across long before I became interested in volcanology – that of the 1886 Tarawera eruption.

The ghost waka (canoe) seen on Lake Tarawera, days preceding its eruption, along with a change in water levels of the lake, was a warning of impending danger to local Maori.  As with other volcanoes of Aotearoa, there were legends surrounding Tarawera that clearly indicated the local iwi had long been aware of the hazards it posed – but particularly interesting to me is how the sighting of the waka wairua demonstrates how the events of that time were also being mythologised. We’re now used to thinking of myths as things of a far more distant past. ­­

I wonder whether such traditions have been lost altogether now – either lost with the arrival of newcomers (for example the arrival of Pakeha traditions in New Zealand) or considered less valuable thanks to competing ideas from science. Or have they just evolved? Will we have myths explaining the Christchurch earthquakes, for example, in a few hundred years?


My final question on this topic is whether we can still use cultural knowledge as protection from natural hazards. Could preserving traditions, myths, or ways of communicating help to pass on knowledge of the land that was acquired over centuries? My instinct is to say yes – but if a conscious attempt is made to do so, does that increase the risk of those traditions being suffocated by science?


Culture, responsibility, and hazard management

Culture surrounding natural hazards can be thought of in another way. One of the papers we were assigned to read compared Icelandic and British responses to the Eyjafjallajokul eruption of 2010, when fine ash in European airspace held up flights for weeks. While large numbers of travellers were affected around Europe, one of the less publicised impacts was on Icelandic farmers – the population of Iceland have also been living with volcanic hazards for centuries, and from my (admittedly limited) reading it sounds like there is a culture of self evacuation and self responsibility rather than an expectation that the authorities will ‘take care of us’.


Isn’t there a risk, though, that this could go wrong if people are given personal responsibility but don’t take account of hazard warnings? One of the issues raised during talks by Jonty Rougier was that, for an individual, a high level of risk may remain personally acceptable – but when integrated over a whole population, (hundreds or thousands of people who each feel they are taking an acceptable risk), the overall risk may not be acceptable for the group. Perhaps that’s where one of the tasks I see as central to volcanology comes in – giving people the knowledge to make informed choices and understand why warnings are issued. This means not just expecting a population to heed all warnings from the authorities but also ensuring people have access to information about the hazards and why the warnings are issued.


So…over to you! What do you think?


One thought on “Volcanoes and Society – AXA research day (1)

Kelby HicksPosted on  12:36 pm - Sep 27, 2012

Some thoughts on your last point about personal responsibility.

Jonty has a very good point about different perspectives of personal responsibility in relation to what is deemed ‘acceptable’ risk. I feel our perspective of what is an acceptable risk depends on the physical number of people being considered. For example: if a few, maybe one to several hundred individuals are living in a high risk zone, we often perceive these individuals to be taking an unacceptable amount of risk with their lives. However, what if thousands upwards to many millions of people are living in a high risk zone? We then think it’s a risky choice to stay there but they likely don’t have a choice, what can the greater scientific and governmental community do to help? With this group we remove the individual personal responsibility and ‘promote’ it to a communal responsibility to protect against risky behaviors.

I don’t feel this difference in perception is intentional but is an inevitable consequence of larger concentrations of individuals having a louder voice and more capital to invest into mitigation strategies. Maybe we expect solitary or diminutive collections of individuals to have invested in discovering what relevant natural hazards exist and in doing so, thoroughly understand these risks to make an informed decision. Being small in number, they can readily move if threatened and are therefore responsible for their own safety. Of course in reality that isn’t always the case at all. Individuals often live outside the boundaries because of socioeconomic reasons such as poverty, being a refugee or their profession (farmer, logger, etc.). They have never considered or had the opportunity to invest time in researching the potential impacts of natural hazards nor do they have necessarily have the ability to rapidly evacuate.

This brings up the question where do the authorities stand in educating and disseminating information to threatened individuals? The sensible approach would be to educate the entire population about the hazards in a manner individually tailored to their particular situation. For example: in traditional villages the education style needs to be congruent with and sensitive to local customs to ensure adequate comprehension. The same goes for a mega city where local customs should be considered and dissemination could involve popular media such as social networking sites and tv. So even though the information is packaged and distributed differently, the base message stays the same.

When educating the population, something to note is the difference between volcanic eruptions and more common events like hurricanes, tornadoes, etc. Particular emphasis should be placed on the effects of hazards such as pyroclastic density currents, caldera collapse or large landslides which have nearly a total fatality rate for direct impact. Compare this with the survival rates of a direct hurricane impact and the reality of not evacuating becomes clear. There is no ‘riding this one out’, a mindset commonly seen in places like the southern United States during hurricane season.

The next problem is likely the most difficult to come to grips with. Saying accurate and tailored information has been successfully disseminated to a population, how do you then anticipate each individual’s reaction during a time of crisis? For example: will they heed the warnings and evacuate, will they refuse to leave on the basis of protecting possessions or stay having decided the authorities are overstating the danger? Maybe the individual is a thrill seeker and stays or even enters the area for the purpose of experiencing the big show. Point is the intricate nature of the individual human mind makes us quite an unpredictable creature. Out of any given population there will be a number of people who, for whatever reason, will refuse to leave. What do you now do? Force them to evacuate using a military or police force or take the standpoint that you’ve done all possible to convince the individual to leave and it’s now up to Mother Nature to decide? Darwin might be proud of this latter concept.

I know I’ve only posed more questions than answers. I hope it shows the vastly complex nature of the problem officials and scientists are dealing with. The absence of large volcanic events in the ‘developed’ world over the past century means these events aren’t readily at the forefront of public thinking. The 2010 eruption of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull served to remind the northern hemisphere of the fragility of ‘modern’ life and how an incredibly small event can paralyze infrastructure. The advent of the internet and modern 24hr media coverage hopefully means events like this will no longer go unnoticed and help to expand knowledge and foster the desire to be prepared.

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