Amy Donovan

As earthquake experts worldwide reflect on an Italian court’s ruling to convict scientists on manslaughter charges for failing to predict the L’Aquila earthquake of 2009, Dr Amy Donovan discusses the importance of a strong connection between scientists and policymakers in helping to communicate risk.

Advisory structures and mechanisms – and monitoring networks – have to be in place prior to an eruption, and the best results are achieved when scientists and policymakers are not meeting for the first time when the crisis begins.

Dr Amy Donovan

The recent verdict of manslaughter against Italian scientists has caused alarm and anguish in the scientific community. It shows both the challenges involved in communicating the nature of scientific uncertainty to publics and politicians, and the importance of the framing of scientific advice. With population growth in hazardous areas, dependence on scientific advice about natural hazards has never been higher, yet after recent events many scientists will be understandably worried about offering advice at all. The management of both volcanic eruptions and earthquakes requires extensive communication between scientists and policymakers, and between these groups and the public: fostering understanding between all parties remains of primary importance in ensuring clear communication of both risk and uncertainty.

When Eyjafjallajokull erupted in April 2010, the British public got a shock: we have no active volcanoes in mainland Britain, but we can still be affected by volcanic hazards. Our dependence on advanced technologies such as aviation has made us, in some ways, more vulnerable to natural hazards.

Living in a culture that seems to be increasingly risk-averse (it is a safe bet that Charles Lyell, a great geologist of the 19th century, did not have to fill in a risk assessment to use a microscope!), we wonder whether the hazards themselves are increasing, or whether we are simply increasing our exposure to them. Larger populations with longer life expectancies, rising costs and high dependence on technologies coupled with the desire to manage risk presents significant challenges both to scientists and to policymakers.

Volcanoes present a particular problem: eruptions at any one volcano may be extremely rare, and certainly do not occur on typical political timescales. Yet when they do erupt, volcanoes can obliterate large areas and there is nothing that mankind can do. Volcanoes are the Earth’s way of cooling down – heat from the formation of the Earth and radiogenic isotopes within it has to be released. The dynamics of this process are extremely complex and while a great deal of research is being undertaken concerning volcanic activity, plate tectonics, mantle plumes and the convection of the Earth’s mantle, relating our current knowledge of these processes to the spatial and temporal likelihood of eruptions is very challenging.

Moreover, the timescales of large eruptions are very different from the timescales of governments (for the most part!): they are high-impact but low-probability events. In an increasingly globalised environment, eruptions clearly have transnational impacts and affect both volcano-rich and volcano-free nations.

The Eyjafjallajokull eruption is a good example: it was a relatively small eruption that caused very significant disruption as a result of technological development and societal dependence on it. Scientists in the UK knew that volcanic eruptions in Iceland could affect the UK because a much larger eruption (the Lakagígar fissure eruption in 1783–4) had previously caused famine in both Iceland and northern Europe. Nevertheless, the possibility was not considered significant enough to place it on the risk register, in part because of a breakdown of communication between the scientific community and the government – but governments cannot prepare for every eventuality in any case.

The recent history of volcanology has demonstrated repeatedly that eruptions are managed most effectively when lines of communication between policymakers and scientists have been open for some time. It often comes down to personal relationships between key individuals. In many countries (including Iceland), this role is undertaken by a civil protection agency and scientific advisory groups that meet once or twice a year (more often if there is a crisis) to keep officials up to date. The key benefit of this is that people know each other before a crisis occurs, and they know who to call upon for information. Volcanology is a very interdisciplinary subject, involving geochemists, geologists, geophysicists and, increasingly, social scientists. These groups speak slightly different languages, so interaction between them prior to a volcanic crisis is also important. In Iceland, for example, a committee of scientists, government representatives and civil protection officials meets every few months to review the level of volcanic and seismic activity. This interaction has helped to ease the pressures of communication in a crisis by ensuring that networks are already in place between scientists and officials. It also maintains awareness of a risk that may not be felt constantly, but whose realisation can have a major impact.

On 18 July, 1995, explosive activity began at the summit of the Soufriere Hills Volcano in Montserrat. Episodic eruptions have continued ever since. The volcano has rendered almost two-thirds of the island unusable in the medium term. Prior to the eruption, there was little awareness of the risk on the island – and one of the challenges when the eruption started was creating the institutional framework to deal with it. Working out the scientific, political and social needs was a slow process that took years and presented difficulties both to scientists and to policymakers, not to mention the people who lost most of what they had. The social context of scientific work feeds into the work itself; many scientists are conscious of social responsibilities, but it can be difficult to bridge the gap between the huge amount that we do know about volcanoes, and the specific questions that policymakers have in a crisis. These questions frequently involve extensive extrapolation beyond knowledge and into uncertainty: communicating the limitations of scientific advice is also important.

As populations increase, over a billion people now live within 100 km of an active volcano (one that has an active magma chamber and could erupt). Technological development, as was very clear during the Fukushima crisis in Japan, cannot immunise the risk from natural hazards – and it can also increase it. Volcano monitoring is advancing, but many volcanoes remain poorly monitored or are not at all – witness the scornful reaction of Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal to the inclusion of “something called volcano monitoring” in the US budget. Managing the next big eruption in a populous area requires scientific study and monitoring alongside social and political awareness. Advisory structures and mechanisms – and monitoring networks – have to be in place prior to an eruption, and the best results are achieved when scientists and policymakers are not meeting for the first time when the crisis begins. This facilitates understanding between the parties, allows the proper framing of advice and therefore safeguards the process of risk management and communication. Increasingly, too, legal protection may be required to bring scientists to the table in the first place.

Amy is a Research Fellow at Girton College and Leverhulme/Newton Trust Early Career Fellow in the Geography Department. Her work concerns the use of volcanological science in the political management of eruptions. Her current project is entitled 'Volcanoes on borders: Potentially explosive geopolitical agents', and examines the scientific and political challenges of eruptions whose impacts stretch beyond national boundaries. This involves both scientific analyses and social scientific investigations, and sits at the interface of human and physical geography.

The Institute of Continuing Education will be running a weekend residential course at Madingley Hall, Cambridge, on 'The way the world works: earthquakes, volcanoes and plate tectonics' from Friday 8 February 2013 at 19.15 until Sunday 10 February 2013 at 14:00.

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