As reprinted from the International Association of Volcanology & Chemistry of the Earth's Interior (IAVCEI), 75th Commemorative Anniversary Newsletter, No. 2, November, 1997.


R. B. Trombley, Ph.D
DeVRY Institute of Technology
International Volcano Research Centre
3408 S. Tomahawk Rd., Suite # 31
Apache Junction, Arizona 85219-9169 USA
Tel: +1 602 671-1601
Fax: None
e-mail: [email protected]
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It is fair to say that there's no question in anyone's mind that the natural disasters, particularly volcanic eruptions, about the world are a way of life. Volcanoes are going to erupt and the natural disasters are going to occur even though they may not occur, in most cases, with great frequency. This fact is both fortunate and unfortunate. The fortunate portion is that the victims are kept to a minimum and persons are inconvenienced less and less property is damaged and/or lost than if volcanic disasters occurred with relative frequency. It is unfortunate in that because volcanic disasters do not occur with a great frequency, people tend to be unconcerned or otherwise forget about their consequences. It has been shown by many sociologists, scientists, and others, that at all levels of government, particularly in third world countries, in fact, there is not much being done in the way of educating the populace about the dangers of volcanic eruptions as perhaps should be done.

In a Southwest Volcano Research Centre (SWVRC) study, one of the problems that has been found relative to the formula typically used in disasters, is that risk equals probability times the consequences. In SWVRC's quest to, as accurately as possible, forecast volcanic eruption events, it has been found that if the probabilities are low, even though the consequences of an eruption may have great consequences, the risk is perceived to be low, and vice-versa. In some cases, adequate warnings of impending volcanic eruptions has been provided, but the general populace has chosen to ignore those warnings. Two cases, worthy of note in this century, will illustrate this tragic point.

More than 23,000 people were killed when lahars (volcanic mud & debris flows) swept down from the erupting volcano, Nevado del Ruiz, located near the village of Armero, Columbia. The entire village was destroyed by the lahar on November 13, 1985. When the volcano became restless in 1984. No team of volcanologists existed that could rush to the scene of such an emergency. Research has shown that no single factor was responsible for the disaster. Contributing factors included a lack of a timely hazards evaluation (a hazard map took nearly a year to complete after the first signs of volcanic unrest and was available for distribution only days before the eruption), an inadequate monitoring system at the volcano, an inadequate system of educating the populace, and an ineffective procedure for communicating information and making decisions during the emergency. In hindsight, the disaster at Nevado del Ruiz could have been prevented.

Mt. Pelee is famous for the May 8, 1902 eruption which killed nearly 29,000 people and destroyed the city of St. Pierre on the island of Martinique in the French West Indies. This is the largest number of causalities for a volcanic eruption this century and the third most deadly eruption of all time; Tambora in 1815 (92,000 killed) and Krakatau, in 1883 (36,000 killed) are the first and second respectively, and are the most deadliest volcanic disasters of all time. Once again, in the city of St. Pierre, the citizens basically ignored the reactivated Mt. Pelee's belching, steaming and having minor eruption episodes prior to the catastrophic May 8th eruption. Citizens were even told by local government officials that there was no danger -- nothing to worry about !! (There was to be a local election which was supposed to be held on the day after the May 8th eruption.) They lost the election, the people and the city of St. Pierre was totally destroyed. There were only two survivors. Another tragedy which perhaps could have been prevented.

The ability to forecast eruptions has met with both some success and failure and the responses to those forecasts has also brought up some interesting considerations of both social disruption and risk. These disruptions and risks will certainly occur in the future. The volcanic disasters that will inevitably occur in the future may be far worse than ones of earthís historical past. Since civilization began, the earth has not really experienced one of the really large volcanic eruptions that we know has occurred in the past. The only known relatively recent historical eruption that has emitted more than 1,000 cubic kilometers of magma at the Toba Caldera about 75,000 years ago in Indonesia. It is inevitable that such an eruption will most likely occur again sometime and somewhere on the earth. It is not a matter of if; it is only a matter of when. We must try to prepare not only for this eventuality, but certainly the lesser, but nevertheless, just as potentially deadly and catastrophic eruptions.

SWVRC thoroughly agrees with Fernando A. Munoz of C. INGENOMINAS, Bogata, Columbia and Andrew B. Lockhart, USGS Cascades Volcano Observatory, Vancouver, Washington when they stated in their article, "International workshop on communication between volcanologists and the community", held in Popayan, Columbia on June 5th through June 9th at the World Organization of Volcanological Observatories (WOVO) workshop when they stated, "Close cooperation among the three elements of the local residents, disaster officials and scientists is the foundation of an effective disaster plan. From some unnoticed cut-off or lack of preparation, a natural disaster could grow into man-made disaster with widespread deaths and injuries. To maintain lines of communication, the securing of a system of emergency information communication and determining the role of mass media is very important. Moreover, for the sake of local residents, the role of education was especially noted. In particular, for the sake of the children who will be living in the future, it is necessary to make them well informed with correct information about local history and the volcanoes. "

The technology and science already exists to provide adequate warnings to the general populace and is done to a great extent today, although imperfect, of future volcanic eruptions over both the long (years) and short term (days to weeks) periods. SWVRCís eruption forecasting programme "ERUPTION" strives to achieve and provide the long term warnings. It, like current short and long term eruption forecasting, is not perfect. Education of the general public must occur. The general public must be aware and take heed. These warnings will be of little value if not clearly understood by government officials and the news media in general. It is imperative that much of the understanding of volcanic eruptions and their consequences exist before the next crisis occurs. Volcanic risk can be minimized. Currently, the main problem seems to be establishing cooperation between volcanologists, government officials, and the news media all of whom are likely to be involved in eruption crises. Further, the general populace at risk must be educated about the dangers from volcanic eruptions and how those risks can be reduced.

SWVRC intends to participate and contribute, to the extent possible, an education programme geared at educating the general public about the real nature of volcanoes, the risks and consequences of living near them. SWVRC will start at home by offering free to low-cost presentations to school educational systems and other groups. No one who happens to live near a volcano, wants to be constantly dwelling on the inherent dangers therein, but it is imperative that one plans for the worst and hopes for the best.