Category Archives: Volcanic Risk Communication

Volcano ‘Oscars'(*)

Not since ‘Volcano’ was nominated for a ‘Razzie’ for ‘Worst Reckless Disregard for Human Life and Public Safety‘ has there been such a buzz about awards and volcanic films.

Volcanologists are rarely ‘ivory tower’ scientists, few are immune to the delights or the impacts of the phenomena they study on those who are around to witness them.

Instinctively we want to share the wonder we find in witnessing eruptions, the key messages for those wishing to avoid harm, and the joy of volcanological research! Increasingly, this instinct is also being supplemented by carefully devised and analysed communication strategies.

Film and video is one of the most important ways we communicate our science so the time was right to share, celebrate and inspire one another with the wide range of efforts being made across the globe by volcanologists and the researchers and communities with whom they work.

This playlist below forms the majority of  entries to the splendidly well received ‘Volcano Movie Night(s)’ at Cities on Volcanoes 9 in Puerto Varas. The enthusiastic audience of > 100 moviegoers voted for the winners across four categories.

See if you agree! Thank you to everyone who submitted their film.


(1) La erupción del Volcán Caulle: Eduardo Jaramillo & Felipe Dreves, Universidad Austral del Chile

(2) Monitoring Yasur, Vanuatu. Geoff Lerner, University of Auckland

(3) Huellas de eventos naturales extremos: Erupción del Volcán Calbuco, sur de Chile / Abril-Mayo 2015Eduardo Jaramillo & Felipe Dreves, Universidad Austral del Chile

(4) “Catching the Quakes: tracking seismic signals generated by debris flows: Liz Westby, United States Geological Survey


 academy_award_trophy(5) Il Proyecto Huayruro: Rachel Gusset (Universite de la Reunion)


(1) Lahar front at Merapi Volcano, Indonesia, Sandy Budi Obowo, Universite de la Sorbonne, France

(2) Volcanic Infrasound, Isaac Kerlow, University of Singapore


 academy_award_trophy(3) Eruption of Tolbachik, Marina and Alexander Belousov

For copyright reasons the original spectacular  video and the  soundtrack used can’t be shown, but here are two  excerpts containing some of that material.  It won’t disappoint- and if you would like access to the original video please contact the Belousovs!


(1) The Colombia-US Bi-National Exchange: Liz Westby, USGS

(2) Eruption – La Soufriere, St. Vincent. STREVA Project

(3) The 1932 Eruption of Quizapu: (uncovered by Gabriela Jara, Sernageomin)

Embedded in this link.


 academy_award_trophy(4) Memories of Nevado del Ruiz: Anna Hicks (BGS), Teresa Armijos (UEA) and Gloria Patricia Cortes (SGC) – STREVA Project


(1) Volcano’s Dream: Micol Todesco, INGV

(2) Water Volcanoes: Micol Todesco, INGV

(3) The Princess of Magayon, Isaac Kerlow, Earth Observatory of Singapore

(4) Geogirls: 5 days of discovery at Mt. St. Helens, Liz Westby, USGS

(5) Hazards from Pyroclastic flows and lahars: Sarah Brown and Steve Sparks. A refined version of these  video will be released soon for everyone to share and use.


 academy_award_trophy(6) ‘Alas por la Ciencia en Indonesia’: Antony Finizola and ‘Wings for Science’.

Finally, SERNAGEOMIN created a fantastic opening video for the start of the conference. Here it is:

(*) The Use of the Image of the Academy Award is interpreted as ‘fair use’ to illustrate the three dimensional work of art which represents those awards.

(Volcano) Science and Disaster Risk Reduction

All this week the World Conference in Disaster Risk Reduction is happening in Sendai. You may recognise the #WCDRR in your Twitter timeline.

This includes the launch of the UNISDR Science and Technical Advisory Group Report. They conclude that science should be ‘useful, usable and used’ and when that happens its a powerful tool in reducing the impact of hazardous events. The science community can still offer even more by making their information, evidence and monitoring more available and accessible. The Group recommends doing this via knowledge sharing, multidisciplinary approaches and partnerships at many scales. Bravo!


Tungurahua with Banos in the foreground and the communities around the flank (Photo: Jon Stone)
Tungurahua with Banos in the foreground and the communities around the flank (Photo: Jon Stone)

USEFUL, USABLE and USED: the monitoring of Tungurahua in Ecuador

One of the case studies used in the Report provides a powerful example of this type of usuable science. The  UNISDR case study focusses on the relationships between the monitoring organisation (IG-EPN) and a network of volcano watchers (vigias) drawn from the villages nearest to the volcano. However, the scientific effort extends far beyond that, and a new open-access paper in the Journal of Applied Volcanology provides a fantastic first-hand record of:

  1.  the data from 15 years of eruptive activity;
  2. the social, political and cultural landscape into which the volcano erupted and
  3.  the experience of that for the scientists involved and the steps they took to cope and to encourage the most effective use of their monitoring data.

The IG-EPN have set up a local observatory (Observatorio del Volcan Tungurahua, OVT), partly thanks to the loan of a local hacienda. Staff provide a sustained presence from Quito on shifts lasting 8 days, this sustained presence has contributed to a turnaround in local attitudes to the monitoring scientists and in turn the utility of the data and intepretations they provide.

“ the most critical moment [ in 2000] some hotel owners threatened to chase out OVT scientists with machetes and even to set the observatory on fire! (Mothes et. al. 2015)”

The willingness of the IG-EPN to continue to engage via frequent interaction with both local communities and decision-makers in addition to their collaboration with the vigias is a truly inspiring example of making life work for communities around an active volcano. Despite the fact that the scientists involved have numerous volcanic crises to deal with they have taken the time to share their data and experiences to date in this fascinating paper. What a priviledge, you should read it!

“Developing trust between local people, authorities and scientists is mutually beneficial, especially when the mission is long (Mothes et al., 2015)”


Patricia A Mothes*, Hugo A Yepes, Minard L Hall, Patricio A Ramón, Alexander L Steele and Mario C Ruiz (2015) The Scientific-commuity interface over the fifteen-year eruptive episode of Tungurahua Volcano, Ecudaor. Journal of Applied Volcanology 4:9

Aitis-Selmi et al., 2015 UNISDR STAG REPORT 2015 Report: Science is used for disaster risk reduction.

PreventionWeb (2015) Scientific and Technical Advisory Group. Online Case Studies Using Science for DRR.



Volcanic Crises and Social Media: Top 5

Volcanoes. Lots of them have been erupting recently.

Volcanologists are a sociable bunch and many of them are present in the ‘social ether’. Believe it or not our parent organisation has a protocol for Professional Interaction during Volcanic Crises. It’s contested; and it was written in 1999. It’s about time we as a ‘social community’ acted collaboratively and sought to create a New Protocol for a new media.

I ‘do research’ on risk communication processes and I’ve worked on active systems.  I would not pretend to have a definitive overview, but, here are my top 5 tips. This is done with reference to that initial, carefully created, protocol and inspired by observing some pretty cool teamwork on Twitter in the face of a volcanic crisis.

(i) Act to help not hinder the monitoring organisation. In the midst of a volcanic crisis, life will be tense and abundantly reliant on good teamwork.

Bad teamwork from the Twitterati can include: unhelpful observations of timeliness of statements or information; strongly dissenting critiques of a monitoring organisation’s actions; interpretations in the absence of complete knowledge;speculation on what might happen next or possible impacts (Twitcasting).

Good teamwork could include: a strong trail to the definitive information where available (see iii); recognition of the ‘real’ experts; judgement free info-tweeting.

(ii) It’s not a race. Don’t let the excitement of being the first person to find a photo/image/interpretation get the better of you. With crisis info. treat it like research and only pass on verified or verifiable information. That amazing thing you think you’re the first to spot might be : last year’s eruption; a speck of dirt on a webcam lens; some fog; some nonsense article written by someone who has spent the last 25 years in a locked bunker. That’s all going to end in the clicking of the dustbin sign and feeling embarassed, in the meantime you could have caused real confusion.

(iii) If it’s not your expertise RT not re-interpret. This relates to (i) and (ii). My assumption here is RT’d Tweets don’t annoy your colleagues (they’ll see them once) and this helps to lay the trail back to a definitive source (observatory scientist or eruption expert).  This is helpful communication. If you do know the situation well and want to offer an interpretation just pause for a second to question whether you are in full possession of the facts. Plus, do ask, would you like someone to take your data and do that with it, latte in hand in a cosy office, while you’re out fixing the bust solar panels in the ash? Social media are not the vehicle for the first announcement of your intent to ‘help out’ with data analysis or risk management.

(iv) Respect the affected population. Other people are on Twitter. Yes, it’s true. Mass media like to portray the personal in amongst the terrible. Have a good think about quite how your exhuberant excitement might seem to the person whose house has just been trashed  — if they saw your Tweet.

(v) Do nothing that encourages reckless behaviour. Yes, it’s very exciting and that’s a cool picture. But did they do a very stupid thing to get it?  If they get hurt will other people have to risk their lives to save them? If you were evacuated but could see images of people precisely where you were told not to live would you feel cross? Personally I even steer clear of the ‘Look at the unbelievably stupid thing this person has done to get that picture’ style Tweets but the choice if yours! You may wish to call this out!

Clearly, this is not exhaustive. I’m not sure that it properly acknowledges the role that Twitter Q&A between experts can play in understanding a crisis – and how that plays into open discussion. Science is, after all, a journey and not a destination. However, this is about the height of a crisis – and we at least have to be aware that with social media we’re going on that journey in a crowded room.

The brilliant thing here is that there is absolutely no limit on the extent to which you can provide additional information or share your background knowledge and how this relates to the current activity. Things open up much more when you resort to blogs and think carefully: a  fantastic example of that is of course EruptionsBlog. We can and should do this as much as we all can!

Creative science education is the a brilliant foundation for excellent science communication (e.g. Fischhoff, 2013).

So, have I missed anything? Am I wide of the mark? Interested to hear your thoughts!

PS in for a penny in for a pound. I’ve mapped out my thought processes about talking to the media about volcanological topics. Doesn’t happen often but I do think quite carefully about when I do it.

My mind map of thought processes. The 'Am I better than a googlesearch' was a sage piece of advice From Iain Stewart (Plymouth University) who knows a lot more about effective science education than me!
My mind map of my thought processes in dealing with a media query. The ‘Am I better than a googlesearch’ was a sage piece of advice From Iain Stewart (Plymouth University) who knows a lot more about effective science education than me!


Decision-Making and risk communication: Top Tips in a Crisis

There has been quite a flutter in recent weeks; hovering around the science-policy interface. First up:  just before Christmas Top Tips  and Top Twenty Things lists have been flying through the ether in a way that made me giddy with delight.  It all started with a great Nature article ‘Policy: Twenty Tips for Interpreting Scientific Advice‘; followed by a couple of  tit-for-tat Guardian pieces called ‘Top 20 things scientists need to know about policy-making‘ and ‘12 Things policy-makers and scientists should know about the public‘   (yes, I’m not joking, Nick Hornby must have been beside himself).

Then, just after Christmas, most of the south of England disappeared under water and it was like ….errrr…. no-one had read any of these rules or anything. How did that happen? Howls of ‘not listening’ ‘mis-trust’ ‘betrayal’ and ‘where’s your evidence…’. There were also wellies, a lot of wellies and it was like they’d been given these Top Tips instead:

Image from @Selkie, summarising the key lessons being considered in the wake of the UK flooding in early 2014
Image from @Selkie, summarising the key lessons being considered in the wake of the UK flooding in early 2014

The overwhelming mental image I had was of a bunch of individuals standing on chairs in the wet with loud hailers, announcing their views in the hope that the loud hailer would help them get their point across.

The Top Tips Series are quite brilliant too; and it was exhilarating to see that sort of discussion sprawling in print with no apparent great crisis to have provoked the interest.  Granted,  a full blown natural disaster is not the place to start making policy, but, it is the place where really good risk management decisions have to be made and fast and by all sorts of people from householders to councils to national government. Sitting at the heart of these decisions is undoubtedly good scientific knowledge.

My metaphor now involves cooking a really great dish; with five or six ingredients and in a hurry. The Top Tips are like some really brilliant tasting notes for individual ingredients. Really helpful, but what you lack is the knowledge about how to bring them together and which bits are going to be the key to making the dish really tasty. That, my friends, needs  a little experimentation, interaction and a conversation: a proper one with listening and stuff.

That’s tricky in a crisis…..but to stretch the metaphor further, if you’ve had some good practice at bringing the ingredients together and understand their value, then you’ll be able to whip something up in no time that everyone likes.

That’s the hypothesis the STREVA project is building on: that by considering risk from many different standpoints we might do better in a volcanic crisis.

Finally, in the midst of all this flood-inspired opinion and *concerned faces* I read a paragraph in a paper(*) that throws some brilliant clarity on where science and its communication fits into this.

Let’s all come to the table and take a seat.

Because science communication seeks to inform decision making, it must begin by listening to its audience, to identify the decisions that is members face- and, therefore, the information that they need. In contrast, science education begins by listening to scientists and learning the facts that they wish to convey. Science education provides the foundation for science communication. The more that people know about a science (e.g. volcanology), the easier it will be to explain the facts that matter in specific decisions (e.g. evacuation). The more that people know about the scientific process per se, the easier it will be for science communications to explain the uncertainties and controversies that science inevitably produces.

…..or alternatively you could just play decision-making Top Trumps and try your luck…..

With the launch of Volcanoes Top Trumps ( they have been much on my mind. Here is Jon Stone's graphic he made for a recent STREVA meeting; illustrative of the kind of odd and disparate categories to be weighed in a volcanic crisis
With the launch of Volcanoes Top Trumps ( they have been much on my mind. Here is Jon Stone’s graphic he made for a recent STREVA meeting; illustrative of the kind of odd and disparate categories to be weighed in a volcanic crisis

(*) I changed the examples used to fit my own needs but the paper is by Baruch Fischhoff ‘The Sciences of Science Communication’ in PNAS 110:14033-14039.

Apples, oranges and risk communication


Inspired by some fascinating discussions at Yesterday’s StrevaProject meeting in today’s blog I am going to borrow an exciting concept from the world of literature: the metaphor! I’m using my metaphor to write a short play about risk communication and understanding risk communication (my plundering of the Humanities knows no bounds).

The beauty of this metaphor is that you can apply it to any kind of information exchange around a risky situation. In my head I am applying the metaphor to the communication of scientific information either before or during a volcanic crisis, what are you thinking of?


Risk manager: I’m hungry and also a little thirsty. I could really do with an orange to help me out.


Scientist: Da-nah! I’ve got an apple!

Risk manager (deflated): oh

Scientist: I think you are hungry and need this apple, it’s what I could find. Take it!

Risk manager: OK. Thanks.


Scientist: Hmmmmmmmm…….. that didn’t go very well. I can’t be explaining it clearly enough. Let’s try again!

Scientist: I’ve got an apple. YOU NEED IT. Here, I have prepared a handy factsheet that explains really clearly why the apple is great. [general applause from audience of scientists]

Risk Manager (thinks): I don’t really like apples. I’m also a little bit thirsty. (says): Thanks.


Scientist: Hmmmmmmm…..I’ve a funny feeling they think they need an orange. I know, I’ll make it seem like an orange.

Scientist: I’ve got an apple, and look I’ve painted it orange because we’ve known each other a while now and I think I know what you need! It’s an apple that is a bit like an orange!

Risk Manager: hmmmmmmm….. well thanks, then [pauses] Look can we talk about this; I’m not sure about the apple.

Scientist (thinks): Oh no! They want me to join a FOCUS GROUP. They are probably going to make me talk about how I FEEL about APPLES. I can’t do this. This is messing with my objective INTEGRITY, they are trying to make me give them an orange and help them juice it. Well, I simply won’t (says): Look, you need an apple pal, just take THE APPLE.

Risk Manager ( Sighs): OK. Let’s talk about this down the pub then.

[walk offstage, pause, drink, chat, beer, social capital social capital, re-enter stage]

Scientist: Well look, if it’s the orange you really want; the problem is I can only give you a few segments and just explain what the rest probably looks like. In the meantime the apple will also help a bit.

Risk Manager: Now you are talking…let’s take it from there.


I wrote this play because at our meeting we performed a simple ranking exercise about priorities during a volcanic crisis and good communication consistently ranked very highly across the diverse group of experts present. It is important. And yet, sometimes we seem to be content to react instinctively about what works best; and nervousness about objectivity and dialogue around scientific information abounds. Plain old experience of what works counts for a lot in these situations, but, given how important it is, there is a lot we could do to gather evidence for what works and develop and test hypotheses. Perhaps communication processes deserve a similar level of analysis and respect to that which we give our physical data.

The theory [*]  tells us somewhat that the final approach in my play should work best, but I don’t think we fully understand if it does; why it does and what works best in different volcanic contexts. It makes it an exciting field to be in!  As part of the StrevaProject we hope to carefully gather and analyse evidence for the communication of risk to those affected by volcanic eruptions. Follow our progress with @StrevaProject

(*) If you are new to this game here are a couple of papers. A link to a starter for ten and another to a paper that summarises some of the thinking on volcanic risk communication from an earlier interdisciplinary project (SPIDER Network, website sadly now defunct)