In the shadow of the volcano

April 9, 1999

When earth scientists squabble among themselves about the intricacies of their jargon-laden research, they risk the lives of those who live near to a volcano. Alwyn Scarth reports on failures that killed thousands

In the past, volcanic eruptions came like bolts from the blue, rendering those in their vicinity helpless as rivers of lava ripped through the landscape and suffocating ash blackened out the sky. Nowadays, increasingly refined techniques allow earth scientists to keep the world's most volatile volcanoes under constant surveillance. Thus, in principle, the volcano warns the experts, who warn the authorities, who warn the people under threat.

However, only a few volcanoes fall under this round-the-clock surveillance and there are far more active volcanoes than active volcanologists. In fact, there are still hundreds of potentially dangerous volcanoes about which even a rudimentary knowledge is lacking.

Everybody knows that volcanoes expel lava flows, but the lava kills only rarely. The greatest dangers lie elsewhere. Incandescent clouds of ash, travelling at 500 kilometres an hour, killed ,000 people in Saint-Pierre, Martinique, in 1902. In 1883, huge ocean waves from Krakatoa drowned most of its 36,417 victims, 40 kilometres from the volcano.

These examples show that it is difficult for scientists to forecast exactly what a volcano is likely to do and to react accordingly, especially since volcanologists are seldom trained to forecast eruptions. Standard training for volcanologists focuses on the geological study of the deposits from volcanoes, not on how and why they might erupt. The difficulties caused by the lack of experts in applied volcanology are exacerbated by the conflicting opinions, preoccupations and interests of the different groups involved when a volcano erupts -the academics, admistrators, journalists and, of course, the local population.

These groups rarely speak the same language, and doubts and disagreements about the future course of events are often interpreted in different ways. Meanwhile, earth scientists communicate with each other in a jargon that is incomprehensible to the uninitiated, as any perusal of the Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research will clearly demonstrate.

For the scientists, every doubt and disagreement spells more discussion, more research, more indispensable publications and better prospects of promotion.

The reputation of volcanology has suffered from rivalries among research groups. In 1976, the Soufri re volcano erupted on the French West Indian island of Guadeloupe. The people believed that they were about to suffer the same fate as those living near Saint-Pierre in 1902 - a view confirmed by a research group led by Claude All gre, now France's minister of education, but then a volcanologist - and thousands of people were evacuated from the danger zone.

However, well-known French volcanologist Haroun Tazieff - himself later French minister for science - argued that the worst of the eruption was over on the first day - an assertion that proved correct. The disagreement ended in an unedifying spectacle in the courts, where, ironically, Tazieff lost.

But beyond the infighting within the academic community, the situation is further complicated by industrial, commercial, political and military interests. Government administrators view natural disasters such as eruptions as threats to civil order that, at the very least, might reflect badly on their careers. When they are interested in the emergency - which is not always the case - administrators need simple answers to complicated questions. When will the eruption reach its climax? When should people be evacuated? This kind of information is too often unavailable.

Although a slow reaction might prove fatal, evacuees are seldom grateful for being rescued from a menace that fails to materialise. In fact, as the Mexican government found after Paricut!n erupted in 1943, some evacuees are far from happy to be rescued at all. Although the refugees from that particular eruption were rehoused in new villages, many of them so missed their old homes that they died of grief.

In terms of alerting the public to an impending threat, the media is the main source of information. But for journalists, who want clear facts and good sound-bites, scientific discourses peppered with provisos and caveats are useless. Media attention instead often turns to local heroes and public figures, whose ignorance of eruptions is only surpassed by their eagerness to make authoritative-sounding pronouncements about them. Thus the United States media latched on to Harry Truman when Mount St Helens erupted. Truman refused to budge from his home at the foot of the volcano when the eruption started, and on his frequent appearances on television, he expressed all the homespun defiance of the true pioneer. The climax of the eruption, on May 18 1980, buried him under hundreds of metres of hot ash. Ironically, the unexpectedly large eruption also buried David Johnston, the geologist on duty that morning.

Ordinary people, threatened by a volcano, usually have no idea what to do or whose advice to follow. They do not have the knowledge to make up their own minds, they do not understand the scientists and consequently turn to local pundits or, more often, priests. But the people themselves are not beyond reproach. They suffer from disaster myopia. They are unwilling to leave their homes for distant tents. They also know that if they do leave, their houses will be looted in their absence. As a result, people living near volcanoes tend to prefer advice that favours inertia. Hence the fatal outcome of the eruptions of Mont Pelee in 1902 and Nevado del Ruiz in 1985.

A final lesson from the study of volcanic eruptions is that the emergency must be met with proper coordination of all available intellectual and financial resources, backed by experts who can communicate, by administrators who understand what might happen when they are told properly, and by governments that have the political will to pay more than lip-service to resolving the problems presented by the crisis. It is important to remember, too, that no eruption has ever been stopped.

Alwyn Scarth was a lecturer in geography at the University of Dundee. His book Vulcan's Fury will be published by Yale University Press in June, Pounds 19.95.

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