Caribbean Case Study Reveals How to Manage Volcano Risk


In “Caribbean case study reveals how to manage volcano risk,” María Elena Hurtado summarizes a new studies by University of Cambridge geographers Amy Donovan and Clive Oppenheimer, in which they examined the 15 years that Montserrat’s Soufriere Hills volcano was active in order to find way in which to manage risk due to volcanic activity.

Volcanologists advising governments on active volcanoes should acknowledge the uncertainties in their risk estimates and work with social scientists to more effectively communicate the threat to local people, concludes a case study from Montserrat, in the British West Indies. Amy Donovan and Clive Oppenheimer, geographers from the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom, studied the interaction between science and policy over the 15 years that the Soufriere Hills Volcano on the small Caribbean island remained active.

The Soufriere volcano first erupted in July 1995, spouting lava until March 1998 and then sporadically from November 1999 until February 2010. There were no eruptions on record there before this activity and the capital city, where most islanders lived, was on the volcano’s flanks. Two-thirds of the population left in the three years after the first eruption. In 1995, an observatory was set up to monitor the erupting volcano and, from 1997, a team of international scientists carried out regular risk assessments. “Volcanic risk assessment was really pioneered there,” Donovan tells SciDev.Net.

The paper is based on the analysis of scientific reports on the volcano and interviews with local people scientists and policymakers carried out between 2008 and 2010. It found that when the volcano first erupted, there was scarce information about the event’s magnitude and likely progression. Also, there were no institutions providing scientific advice or dedicated government bodies to manage the resulting crises. And recommendations from a 1980s report that could have helped plan in advance for an eruption were largely ignored.

It adds that the volcanic crises would have been easier to manage had a volcanic observatory been in place prior to the eruption and scientists working there had been known to local officials and the public. It also highlights the importance of establishing an advisory mechanism that can kick-in when an emergency occurs. The study also says it is important to make clear the limitations of the science. This was noted early in the Montserrat eruption and was appreciated by local people interviewed as part of the research, it says.

[. . .] Another conclusion, says Donovan, is that scientists must be clear about the structure and remit of institutions involved in managing the volcanic crises and about their legal position, to avoid the fate of the Italian scientists convicted of manslaughter for underplaying the risk of an earthquake at L’Aquila, Italy. She also advises volcanologists to involve social scientists in the advisory process.

[. . .] Angelo Castruccio, a geologist at the University of Chile, tells SciDev.Net that one of the main problems the Montserrat study identifies is the limited mutual understanding shown by all those involved in the upheaval the volcano caused. [. . .] The study is in press in Environmental Science & Policy.

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