Tag Archives: Natural hazards

Nevado del Ruiz, 1985 : mud, memories and moving on

Some of the valleys that surround the slopes of Nevado del Ruiz. The lahar bulked up as it travelled downwards and could have been up to 50 m thick at points
Some of the valleys that surround the slopes of Nevado del Ruiz. The lahar bulked up as it travelled downwards and could have been up to 50 m thick at points

I was 16 when the November 1985 eruption of Nevado del Ruiz sent hot slurries of melted snow, ash, rocks and pumice more than 70km downhill straight into several settlements in the middle of the night. At dawn the following morning the settlement of Armero had all but disappeared under this flow, taking around 75% of its residents with it. Across the valleys more than 24,000 people lost their lives to those flows.

Like me, even the youngest kids who survived or witnessed the scenes of this eruption are now middle-aged, the valleys are green again.

USGS Image of the lahars covering the town of Armero in November 1985
USGS Image of the lahars covering the town of Armero in November 1985

A kernel of volcanologists were created in that moment, and more importantly an army of eye-witnesses who directly recall the impact and agonies of that night and morning. They also have insights into the attitudes and issues that lead to the rudest possible awakening when the lahars ploughed down the slopes of the volcano.

I looked up the river, towards the mountain, and I could see so much mud. It was a huge thing with giant trees, it came with roots that have been taken from the earth, and then it hit me and covered me….I felt as if it was those machines that process rice (eyewitness account)

These eye witness testimonies contain a remarkable flow of information; as rich and insightful into past events as the deposits that volcanologists frequently scramble over.  When the STREVA team held one of our forensic workshops in Colombia with our Project Partners it became clear during this, and subsequent research that a great service would come from finding a way to capture these important memories, for the people who live with the volcano now.

Part of the point of this film to help with sharing experience of the 1985 eruption with the next generation. Alex from Lambdafilms shares some of his footage!
Part of the point of this film to help with sharing experience of the 1985 eruption with the next generation. Alex from Lambda Films shares some of his footage!

We are making a series of films to convey events according to those caught in it, how people live with the volcano today, and answering the most important questions the population has about living with volcanic risk. The first of these films is premiering this week at our partner Servicio Geological Colombiano’s (SGC) commemoration activities for Nevado Del Ruiz . We’ve worked with one of our UK Partners, (Lambda Films) to do this. We understand the value of well shot films, and they have been patient with our need for volcanic detail.

Watching the result of the filming
One of our interviewees watches her footage. Teresa Armijos (UEA) has been working on the films and researching community vulnerability and James from Lambda films has worked with us in Colombia and St. Vincent.

The aftermath of the eruption remains firmly in the world’s eye as a consequence of the images that spread around the world. Sometimes shocking,  awards were handed out for the photographs that captured that desparate tragedy.

The disturbing image Omayra Sanchez, taken just a few hours before she died, with her legs trapped in the wreckage of her home. This image was taken by Frank Fournier,who won the World Press Photo Foundation Award for this image.
The disturbing image of Omayra Sanchez, taken just a few hours before she died, with her legs trapped in the wreckage of her home. This image was taken by Frank Fournier,who won the World Press Photo Foundation Award for this image.

Back in 1985 and back in the UK, a fairly brave piece of children’s programming stuck with broadcasting these images and covered the last few days of life for Omayra Sanchez , as she was trapped in the mud. There was no fairytale ending for her and that remains with me today, a permanent reminder of the complex issues that surround volcanic disasters. With our films we’re not looking to shock anyone but we are looking to work with SGC to use these memories to learn how to improve the outcome from the next eruption. We hope we have done justice to the communities of Nevado del Ruiz who continue to thrive around the volcano.

family_ndR NdR_gang_together_civildefence

Thanks to everyone who participated in the films and the filming, and to the  UK Natural Environment and Economic and Social Research Councils for KE funding.  All photos in this blog by Anna Hicks, unless otherwise stated.

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 (http://volcanoestoptrumps.org) 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 (http://volcanoestoptrumps.org) 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.