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Communicating volcanic risk: lava, eruptions and uncertainty

Jon Mikel Walton's picture
Volcán de Fuego in Guatemala, one of Central America’s most active volcanos, spews ash and lava flows in January 2018, just 70 kilometers west of Guatemala City. Image credit: NASA
Volcán de Fuego in Guatemala, one of Central America’s most active volcanos, spews ash and lava flows in January 2018, just 70 kilometers west of Guatemala City. Image credit: NASA

We live in an age of compounding uncertainty. The unpredictable impacts of climate change and the rapid urbanization of societies is increasing the complexity, difficulty, and necessity of making sound decisions when faced with numerous options. This uncertainty is acute with respect to natural disasters – for example, predicting hurricane intensity or locating the next big earthquake remain challenging tasks despite advances in science and monitoring tools.
 
The challenge of anticipating and communicating the risk of volcanic eruptions to communities requires complex decision-making. Ecuador’s Cotopaxi Volcano and Indonesia’s Mount Agung are recent examples where the warning signs were present (small earthquakes, increasing gas emissions, and more), yet an eruption came much later than expected. Volcanic eruptions are therefore a double-edged sword that often creates a decision-making dilemma. While signs of volcanic activity can provide adequate time for preparation and evacuation, the very same signs can also create conditions of extreme uncertainty, which can be exacerbated by piecemeal communication around eruption events.
 
So, what have we learned from recent experiences on the challenges of communicating volcanic risk? 

Iceland’s Volcano and Climate Science: Will there be a Silver Lining to the Ash Cloud?

Michael Levitsky's picture

The eruption of Eyjafjallajokull in Iceland could mean some good news for those of us concerned with understanding the science of climate change.

As volcanoes go, this is small stuff.  The last volcano to have a substantial effect on global climate was Mount Pinatubo which erupted in the Philippines in 1991. Volcanoes affect global climate largely because the sulfur gases that they emit oxidize in the atmosphere to form sulfate aerosols (fine particulate matter), which stay around in the stratosphere for at least 12 months, and act as a strong cooling agent. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Mt. Pinatubo caused global temperatures to dip by about 0.5 degrees Centigrade for a year. The ash, which has been of concern to airline passengers in Europe and many others across the globe recently, generally has only a small and local effect on climate –it tends to fall to earth in a matter of weeks.