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How stories can help communicate volcanic risk to communities

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Violent volcanic eruptions in Indonesia, Hawaii, and Guatemala have made the world’s headlines in the past few weeks. The eruption of Guatemala’s Fuego volcano has claimed the lives of 110 people and triggered the evacuations of thousands from their homes.

Despite popular belief and public expectation, volcanic eruptions are extraordinarily difficult to predict. Oftentimes, they happen with limited warning, which leaves little if any time for authorities to react, much less communicate the risk to those affected. At other times, a volcano may seem to show all the signs of an imminent eruption, but it doesn’t happen.

When communicating disaster risk and coordinating a response, there’s also more to it than merely predicting whether an eruption will occur. Scientists need to use data and information to determine the potential size, duration and characteristics of the eruption. Will it be explosive, triggering deadly pyroclastic flows and widespread ash, or something else?


The scientific uncertainties surrounding volcanic eruption forecasting are among the many challenges associated with communicating the potential for volcanic eruption to surrounding populations. This is especially true for communities living near volcanoes that have not erupted in recent memory. Science can help, but far too often, it’s not enough to get people and communities to take action.

Iain Stewart, Professor of Geoscience Communication at the University of Plymouth, makes the case that risk communicators also need to leverage the power of stories and narratives to help communities understand the situation. “When you go look at examples where disaster preparedness has failed, it’s because there’s been no enduring, compelling narrative beneath it,” Stewart pointed out.

In this video interview from the 2018 Understanding Risk Forum, hosted by the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery and the World Bank, Stewart discusses the role of stories and narratives in volcanic risk communication with Alanna Simpson, Senior Disaster Risk Management Specialist at the World Bank. 

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