Volcanoes and Society – AXA research day (3)

Volcanoes and Society – AXA research day (3)

Volcanoes and Society – Part Three

Putting together the ideas about culture and risk that we’d discussed during the day, I started thinking about the elements that give a solid base from which to manage a volcanic crisis.


Pre-crisis steps

Baseline education

We talk about baseline monitoring for volcanoes, so that we know what’s ‘normal’ for a particular volcano and what’s not, and can tell when something unusual is happening. However, we also need baseline public education while things are still ‘normal’ – of course, this will help later in managing a crisis. However, equally significantly, it will mean affected populations become accustomed to living with uncertainty– whether that’s not knowing when or what the crisis will be, or whether that’s not knowing how the crisis will proceed.

One thing I often point out when speaking about my work is that the problem isn’t just ‘an erupting volcano’ – if a volcano was erupting violently all the time, we could avoid it. It’s the transition – when and how volcanic behaviour will change – that causes the problem (as well as its effects on the local population, of course). ‘When’ and ‘how’ are difficult to forecast accurately – so perhaps we should consider it the right of affected populations to have access to information that conveys this uncertainty.

Baseline relationships

Another element to establish before a volcanic event is a baseline of relationships to build up trust between the media, scientists, policy makers and the public. As I consider later (and as may seem obvious!) the media can have a strong positive or negative role in how people perceive a hazard and its management. If the media have established contacts they can speak with during a crisis, and if the scientists concerned have experience in communication via the media, then the roles of both are likely to be more positive. From the scientists’ perspective, the media, when taking on this role, would have much to contribute.

Baseline effective policy

There’s an obvious need for government and policymakers to communicate with scientists, in order to (1) have management systems in place for when a crisis occurs, and (2) have reliable, mutually trusting relationships established to support them in working together effectively during the crisis. It is also important to know that the systems that are in place for managing a crisis are effective – and this brings me to the example of Exercise Ruaumoko. This was a program run in Auckland, NZ, about four years ago, to simulate a volcanic eruption. With the exception of the general public – and the lack of an actual volcano – the procedures followed and the parties involved were as they would be in the event of an eruption. Where resources are available, this seems to me the ideal way to ensure that systems would cope. If the general population could be involved, so much the better.


Syn-crisis steps

Science-media relationships: does a unified front amongst scientists give the impression of excluding the public?

Among the set readings for the masterclass was a paper describing two different responses to volcanic crises in the 1970s. Without going into the details for each case, one was a response that was less coordinated, with multiple scientific parties disagreeing very publicly. The end result of such a scenario could be that the scientists appear unprofessional and lose the public trust – not to mention that the issue at hand, the volcanic risk, is overshadowed by the media spectacle. The second instance, when I initially read about it, sounded ideal – a unified front presented by scientists, with very limited channels of information going to the public. But the potential for conspiracy theories is huge and no doubt this would lead to much speculation about information being hidden.

Duties of ‘visitors’ vs. local scientists

Another interesting point not discussed in detail during the day, but that was mentioned in the IAVCEI protocols was that of the responsibilities of scientists from different groups working together during a crisis. These include guidelines for visiting scientists during a crisis, such as that they should be there by invitation only, and leave public statements to the local scientists.



Final thoughts

As a graduate student in volcanology, I found it valuable to participate in these discussions and consider some of the ideas surrounding crisis management early on. At the very least, they are a reminder that our science is very relevant to society.

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