Fear under the volcano

July 26, 1996

I am writing to comment on the short item in Antithesis (THES, July 12) concerning the role of the British volcanologists working in the Caribbean. The article was ill-informed, flippant and seemed to malign United Kingdom scientists who are involved in a rather crucial role in a deeply distressing humanitarian situation on Montserrat. Perhaps you could inform the author of the item of the following facts:

Montserrat is a British Dependent Territory with about 11,000 citizens. The volcano has been erupting since July 1995 and is highly dangerous.

As a consequence about two-thirds of the people have been evacuated and live in primitive refugee accommodation while the eruption continues. The British Government has to make long-term plans for redeveloping the island or for the immigration of a large number of people back to the UK. Both options involve large amounts of UK tax revenue, as well as great distress for the people of Montserrat.

The advice given to the governor, chief minister of Montserrat and UK Government by scientists coordinated by the British Geological Survey is critical. I am sure that the people of Montserrat do not belittle the role of the scientists. Some of the senior scientists involved have put themselves at some risk to collect the essential data necessary to monitor the volcano properly, as well as working round the clock.

It is clear from the item that the author is quite ignorant of the tense difficult and sad circumstances of dealing with a small island whose economy has been wrecked, and where the expertise of UK scientists is proving crucial.

Also for his or her information the Southampton group are concerned with Kich'em Jenny, a submarine volcano south of St. Vincent and north of Grenada.

The volcano has shown signs of activity in recent months. Submarine eruptions can produce devastating tidal waves - 36,000 people were killed by the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 for example. I am sure the people of Barbados, St Vincent, the Grenadine Islands and Grenada will be glad that a group of UK scientists are taking an interest in a potentially very dangerous volcano.

R. S. J. SPARKS Professor of geology University of Bristol

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