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!
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
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.
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.
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?