Don's Diary

September 5, 1997


Academic researchers are often caricatured as crotchety old men hidden in ivory towers, from which only rarely do they descend to walk among mere mortals. Ten days ago when press coverage of the volcanic eruptions on the beautiful Caribbean island of Montserrat finally exploded into a cataclysmic outpouring, I desperately wished that I was also of that ilk. An ivory tower, or for that matter any sort of tower, would have made a welcome refuge from the horde of journalists seeking a hot story about even hotter lava.

I once came across a cartoon in which a livid, media-seeking don was tearing off the last page of a desk calendar and screaming: "Damn, another year and I still haven't seen the inside of a television studio!" Well, after eight TV appearances over the last week, not only have I seen the insides of several such studios, but - for now at least - I have seen enough.

Today I talked to the insurance industry about volcanic disasters. Inevitably everyone wanted to know about Montserrat. As one of the five people who revised the hazard maps for the island last September, I could only repeat the advice we gave then. Although the volcano is becoming more violent, even under the most extreme scenario, the north of the island is safe. Following the end of this eruption it is probable that the volcano will slumber for another 200 to 300 years. There will be rumblings, but nothing worse. Since last June's lethal pyroclastic flow eruptions nobody else has died.


I appear on the lunchtime news and ITN's News at Ten. The message is the same - 'Don't panic!' The British government has a choice. If, as we scientists believe, the north of the island is safe, then money can be directed towards building better housing, etc for the people living there, instead of on helping people to leave and re-settle in Britain.

The 4,000 or 5,000 inhabitants left on the once-emerald isle have lived in appalling conditions for nearly two years, with little privacy, poor sanitation and inadequate education facilities. Originally the community was 12,000-strong.


Sky News. This time I digress. Why do people choose to live on volcanoes? Well, the soil is fertile, so once the eruption is over, it does not take long before people can start earning a living on the slopes again. The Soufriere Hills volcano on Montserrat is characterised by long, lingering eruptions which, although not as devastating as a Krakatoa or a Vesuvius, cause almost as much disruption because they last for years rather than months. With the prospect of this volcano rumbling on into the next millennium, therefore, let is hope that the British government finally gets its act together in providing decent living conditions for those remaining in the north. Planning should also start now for the development of the island's infrastructure when the volcano finally slumbers. After all, before July 1995, Montserrat had been a paradise island for more than 300 years, and when the current eruption is over it will be again.


The calm before the storm. No media interviews. I muse about the fact that as a volcanologist I do have a bit of a head start when writing about my subject. Like dinosaurs, no one - especially kids - seems to be able to get enough information about volcanoes. Evidence the success of the recent explosive blockbuster Dante's Peak, and the imminent arrival of another hot Hollywood epic, Volcano. I think I remember Tim Radford, the Guardian's versatile kiwi science correspondent, state - at one of his amusing talks on science and the media - that the words which most caught peoples' attention in the press were "death", "dinosaur", and "volcano". I often wonder if the asteroid-challenging alternative theory which advocated that dinosaurs were wiped out by huge volcanic eruptions was concocted simply to satisfy the requirements of the perfect science story.


Newsnight with Clare Short, Labour's overseas development secretary, and Jenny Tongue, Liberal Democrat spokesperson. Ms Short is at home, we are in the studio. First comes a Newsnight film from the island which shows quite accurately, though in fairly graphic detail, how appalling living conditions there are. Then I get in a few words about how there is no point developing the south of the island because there will be another cataclysmic eruption in 200 years, stressing, yet again, the scientific consensus that the north is safe. The cameras cut to Ms Short. She is furious at the footage and keeps repeating that the British Government has already spent Pounds 40 million. The fact that people are living in dreadful conditions seems to be quite irrelevant.


A much-needed day of rest.

Bill McGuire

Senior scientist at the Montserrat volcano observatory in September 1996. He is Greig Fester professor of geohazards and director of the Greig Fester Centre for Hazard Research at University College London.

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