Real Science, for Real People

Real Science, for Real People

Scientists often feel pressure to be right. After all, society expects “the experts” to have most, if not all the answers. Volcanoes continuously put this expectation to the test. Eruptions are never straightforward. The textbook is always in need of revision, always ready to deliver a new chapter. Every mountain has its own personality and any volcanologist worth their salt will tell you no different. Throw in populations that have not faced an eruption in generations and that’s a recipe for all things unpleasant. Getting it right is a tall order for anyone, much less a small group of scientists called out to work when the rest of the world was forced to do just the opposite. When an effusive eruption began at the La Soufrière volcano, St. Vincent in December 2020, the team at The University of the West Indies Seismic Research Centre (UWI-SRC), located some distance away in Trinidad, probably didn’t have the time to realize that fate had chosen them to write a new chapter in humanity’s understanding of volcanic phenomena.

La Soufrière is a stratovolcano on St. Vincent, the largest of the 32 islands that make up St. Vincent and the Grenadines, a country best known for luxury Caribbean getaways for the rich and royal. The volcano takes up the northern third of the island and last blew its top on Easter weekend 1979. What was supposed to be a “Good Friday” turned out to be anything but, as an explosive eruption forced an unprepared population to spontaneously evacuate. Accounts of a deadly 1902 eruption no doubt motivating persons to seek shelter further south. On that occasion, scientists from the UWI-SRC responded to the 6-month long eruption. Almost 40 years later, a new generation of scientists, technicians and communicators would be asked to get it right for the sake of those trusting them to predict the next move from an unpredictable mountain.

In November 2020, slight increases in the numbers of earthquakes beneath the volcano put scientists on notice that something was afoot although there were no other indications of unusual activity. Previous eruptions at this volcano had happened with very little in terms of discernible warning. Then in late December a NASA satellite used to track forest fires detected a hot spot in the crater of the volcano. Technicians from the Soufrière Monitoring Unit (SMU) and St. Vincent’s National Emergency Management Organisation (NEMO) would trek up the mountain to see for themselves, freshly extruded magma alongside the dome left behind in 1979. La Soufrière had produced effusive eruptions in the recent past, with the 1971 – 1972 eruption preferring to limit its activity to the summit crater. Whether or not this latest eruption would follow a similar course was up for debate, a debate which would dominate the national conversation for the next four months. With limited resources, the scientists charged with settling the debate set about rapidly strengthening the volcano monitoring network to gain a better understanding of how the eruption would evolve. The temptation to explore esoteric scientific curiosities, had to be resisted in front of 100,000 people expecting an answer to a single question. What next? Would the rapidly growing lava dome, give way to something more sinister? Or would the mountain lose interest and sleep for another generation? Either way, volcano experts and their local emergency management colleagues were expected to know in advance and protect a country already dealing with the effects of COVID-19 and a dengue outbreak. The monitoring data available to scientists, pointed to several possible explanations for the relatively low-key appearance of magma at the surface and the constant “flow” of material since. Visual observations, gas monitoring, seismicity and ground deformation tracking combined with expert elicitation to create a working model for the eruption. A flexible understanding of unseen geologic processes, causing very visible distress, had to cater to the decision-making needs of those operating in very straightened circumstances. At the same time, this information had to be shared with the public in a way that was easy to understand.

Our paper, “Responding to eruptive transitions during the 2020–2021 eruption of La Soufrière volcano, St. Vincent” tells the story of an eruption that tested those required to understand it, those called to manage it and those who could not escape it. The uncertainty that comes with scientific understanding of natural hazards always has the potential to derail the best made risk reduction plans. For these plans to work, emergency managers, hazard experts and the public must embrace the challenge of dealing with dynamic natural phenomena. Experts must remain willing to address the concerns of citizens, clarifying misinformation and offering comfort along the way. Authorities cannot neglect feelings of fear and hopelessness that may arise when receiving grave warnings. Trusting relationships built with the public during outreach activities should enable citizens and officials to take decisive action when necessary. When resources are few they must be put to the best use. Securing lives and livelihoods should be foremost in the minds of those responsible for public safety. When these priorities are straight, getting the right information to those in harm’s way becomes that much more possible.  

The volcano monitoring success that was the 2020 - 2021 eruption at La Soufrière, certainly would not be possible without the commitment of a large group of people focused on ‘getting the right science’ over ‘getting the science right’. Ultimately, it is the chance to protect friends and family, mates and colleagues from serious loss that really matters. This is what society asks of scientists and natural hazard experts. Assembling a team willing to put their lives on the line to provide peace of mind to an anxious people is no small task. Somehow the men and women of the UWI–SRC, Montserrat Volcano Observatory (MVO), NEMO, and SMU with some help from our neighbors and friends managed to do just that. Buoyed by the gratitude of a nation, we had the pleasure of doing some real science for some real people.

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