Volcanoes, hazards and community engagement

I have recently(ish) returned from two weeks of fieldwork in Ecuador and Colombia. These two countries are threatened by a variety of different volcanic hazards (and seismic hazards, too, of course), and this was the motivation for our trip.

The visit was part of the STREVA project – an interdisciplinary research project combining volcanologists and social scientists. The overall aim of the project is to produce plans and protocols that reduce the vulnerability of people and their livelihoods during volcanic eruptions. This includes development of hazard maps, community engagement, risk assessments and improving monitoring strategies.

During this trip we spent a large amount of time meeting with local communities in areas affected by volcanic hazards. We particularly spoke to them about our work on ash and lahars, and collected their feedback both on how they have been affected, and more importantly, how they are managing these issues. By learning how one community has adapted to a certain hazard, we can disseminate these ideas to other affected areas on different volcanoes and in different countries.

Community workshop in Guayabal, Colombia.

Community workshop in Guayabal, Colombia.

Another way to build resilience against future volcanic eruptions is to learn from past experiences. This point has been captured perfectly (I think so, at least) by a series of short videos produced by the STREVA project. They honour the memory of the Armero disaster in 1985 in which over 20,000 people lost their lives to a lahar from the Nevado Del Ruiz volcano. The trilogy takes you through the heartfelt and sombre memories of some survivors, how they have since moved on and now live with the volcano, to the work of the Servicio Geologico Colombiano, who monitor the volcano for future activity. We had the pleasure of showing these videos to a number of communities in pop-up-open-air-cinema style, and they were very well received. Tears, laughs and applause all round.

One of the public viewings of the Nevado Del Ruiz STREVA films.

The videos are now available on YouTube through the STREVA channel, and you can also catch them showing this week at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly who have their very own ‘GeoCinema‘. You will not be disappointed.

Two weeks in the ‘Avenue of Volcanoes’

(Originally posted on the Bristol University BDC Blog)

Workshops, conferences, field work – national and international travel is an essential part of many PhD programs. I’ve been lucky enough to see numerous new parts of the globe during my studies, and, less luckily, numerous different airport layovers (I’m currently writing this post from a corridor between terminals at Washington airport…!).

I’m on my way back to Bristol from a workshop in Ecuador on volcanic unrest, which culminated with an eruption simulation exercise. As my PhD is focused on unravelling the science behind volcanic unrest, these trips (this is the second of three with this specific aim) form a main focus for the real-world application of my research.

This workshop was split into 3 different parts. The first was a series of lectures on how volcanologists, social scientists, emergency managers, civil protection officials, and the general public interact during volcanic crises. Each specialist contributed their individual expertise, in my case as a volcanologist interpreting the signals that the volcano gives off, but the main message was that communication at all times between all parties must be especially clear. As with almost all lectures though, this part of the workshop obviously wasn’t the most exciting – especially with the inevitable jet-lagged tiredness kicking in for the first few days.

The second part of the workshop took us out into the field to explore two of Ecuador’s most famous volcanoes: Cotopaxi and Tungurahua. This was my favourite part! These are two quite epic volcanoes with the classical conical shape you imagine when you think of a volcano. By examining them in situ we learnt about the hazards they pose today to many nearby towns and cities. This really helps to put my research into perspective, as I know that by contributing to a better understanding of how volcanoes work I am helping to protect the people whose livelihood’s depend on the benefits the volcano brings them (for example, the more fertile soil).

Cotopaxi volcano. 5897m ASL.

Cotopaxi volcano. 5897m ASL.

The final part of the workshop took us to the Ecuadorian national centre for crisis management in Quito (cue vigilant security checks!). Here we conducted the volcanic unrest and eruption simulation. This is similar in some ways to a fire drill but a whole lot more complicated. Simulated monitoring ‘data’ from the volcano is fed to a team of volcanologists who have to quickly interpret what the data means and feed that information in a clear, coherent and understandable way to emergency managers, politicians and civil authorities. Upon the advice of the volcanologists, the decision makers can then choose how best to respond and mitigate a potential impending crisis. As this was just an exercise, different stages in the unrest crisis were dealt with all in one very busy day, with ‘data’ from the volcano arriving every couple of hours but representing several weeks or months in simulated time.

The final ‘update’ from the volcano: BIG eruption! I think we all could have predicted that – everyone likes a grand finale.

Despite the Hollywood firework finish, these exercises are crucial to prepare those individuals who will actually be in positions of responsibility when a true volcanic crisis develops. By playing out the different stages in as close to real-life as possible, strengths and weaknesses were highlighted that will allow for improvements to be made in the future. Improvements that may just save extra lives or livelihoods, and foster improved relationships between the public and the scientists trying to help them.

As one of those scientists, I was just happy enough to be able to take part.

Science Snap (#33): Earth Science Week

(Originally posted on the Between a Rock blog)

Earth Science Week is an international initiative to promote the great work that goes on in the geoscience community. It encompasses a huge range of topics; from dinosaurs to glaciers, and volcanoes to meteorites. There’s something for everybody. For an overview of how geoscience can have a positive influence on local communities and save lives, check out this video from the AGU:

For Earth Science Week, events are taking place here in the UK, organised by the Geological Society, as well as across the Atlantic in the US, where the American Geosciences Institute are coordinating things. To get an idea of the sorts of activities that are happening and see where you can get involved, you can check out their websites here and here.

So far my favourite initiative has been the release of the 100 top ‘Geosites’ in the UK. This list, compiled by the Geological Society and voted on by members of the general public, represents the best the UK has to offer in various geological categories (e.g. landscapes, adventurous, educational, and so on). You can view the ‘Geosites’ in an interactive map, and there are some great pictures to flick through in a BBC News article.

Precariously balanced, these are the Brimham rocks in North Yorkshire, part of the top 100 'Geosites' in the UK. Image credit: BBC News.

Seemingly precariously balanced, these are the Brimham rocks in North Yorkshire, part of the top 100 ‘Geosites’ in the UK. Image credit: BBC News.