Category Archives: The Academic Hat

Risky business: getting the balance between research and media coverage

In the ideal world as researchers, we all want our findings to reach the public and be understood. How clear (or unclear) we present our research outside of the science domain could be a reason why it gets interpreted in a way we did not intend.

Near the end of last year, the Campi Flegrei Caldera in Italy, made the news- for better or for worse. The positive part (from a scientific perspective) was that the news came about because a journal article was published and picked up by the media. The less positive part was that in some cases (not all), the interpretation of this news was all doom and gloom. I will look at 1 tabloid and 1 broadsheet based newspapers that reported the news to showcase this.

Critical degassing pressure

The study in question was by Chiodini et al. (2016). They used a volatile (gas) saturation model based on Papale et al. (2006) to illustrate the decompression of magma can reach the ‘critical degassing pressure’, affecting the magma’s ability to release water and convect heat. The sub-disciplines of geochemistry and geophyics were used to understand this. In order to make the experiment applicable to the ‘real world’, Campi Flegrei was used as the main example but, there were also references to Rabaul in Papua New Guinea (Acocella et al., 2015) and Sierra Negra in the Galapagos (Segall, 2013). When I can find them, I will update this post to blogs that go into more detail about this paper.

As a social volcanologist, I am more interested in how people interpreted, responded and communicated the following headlines:

Daily Mail Online: Is the SUPERVOLCANO under Naples about to blow? Campi Flegrei crater shows signs of ‘reawakening’


Shares: 326 (17/01/16)

Comments: 82 (17/01/16)

The article was actually quite brief, and gave a basic version of the main findings. This is understandable and a common practice when communicating information from research to the public. However, the main thing that got my attention was SUPERVOLCANO. The term supervolcano is used to describe a volcano that has produced at least one explosive “supereruption” – that is, an eruption that has a volcanic explosivity index (VEI) 8 or higher, according to Miller and Wark (2008). Other factors that make a volcano “super” are:

  • The ejection of volcanic material has to be greater than 105kg/450 km3 (Sparks et al., 2005; Self, 2006);
  • Relatively shortlived (Francis and Oppenheimer, 2004; Mason et al., 2004);
  • Produce deposits 1000 km3 or more (Miller and Wark, 2008).

Most people are aware of the Yellowstone supervolcano complex, and that is where I think people had jumped to conclusions. Key point that I believe was overlooked was a short quote by Chiodini found in the article:”It is not possible at this time to say when – or if – the volcano will erupt anew” but he then does say if it did. Our science today is not 100% accurate that we can have an exact date and time when an eruption will occur, so communicating the uncertainty is important.

The Guardian: Volcano near Naples showing signs of reawakening


Shares: 4,023 (17/01/16)

Comments: 121 (17/01/16)

A noticeable difference on first glance is the less dramatic headline but, also the significant number of shares and comments.

The summary of findings was essentially the same to the tabloid but, upon reading it the language used does not betray the same level of concern. It presented the facts without using the word “supervolcano”, but interestingly at the end reminds us of the 79AD eruption of Vesuvius. The same quote of Chiodini was used however, it was extended to include the importance of continued research: “Chiodini said there was an urgent need to obtain a better understanding of Campi Flegrei’s behaviour because of the risk to such a dense urban population”. There is plenty of research being done out there on understanding Campi Flegrei, as well as to better inform the public.

Perhaps it is down to more than just knowledge of volcanism (and the particular volcano in question). In the UK, (and perhaps elsewhere, please let me know what it is like in your countries!) it is well known that there are clear divisions in the types of people who read certain newspapers (tabloid versus broadsheet). Maybe it depends on how trustworthy the sources of information are, in the context of hazard communication. With all the issues of fake news of late, this is perhaps important to consider for the future when it comes to communicating about natural disasters and research. For researchers it is important to consider how we communicate our research and in particular uncertainity. Maybe as part of our development as academics, science communication and public engagement should be taught to us by scientists who good at doing so (e.g. Brian Cox, Iain Stewart, David Attenborough, Steven Hawking…where are the famous women STEM communicators?!).


When I heard this news, one of my thoughts was how did the people in Naples and Italy in general respond to this? I have read and heard about the ways volcanologists and key stakeholders involved in managing potential future activity for Campi Flegrei. A noticeable thing I have gathered is that the city of Naples is a very sensitive and challenging situation. There is an expanding population in the vicinity of a famous active volcano that last erupted in 1944 (Vesuvius), but fortunately was not as destructive as the 79AD eruption, as well as Campi Flegrei. Naples is a tourist attraction, I for one have been there on a holiday before heading out to fieldwork on Mt Etna. It is risky, and raises more questions.

Scarlett J. (2014) Vesuvius, from the Bay of Naples. An ever looming threat for the people of Naples, as well as Campi Flegrei.
To get an idea how the people exposed to this area perceive Campi Flegrei, there was a volcanic risk perception study done by Ricci et al. (2013) – which was a great help for my own volcanic risk perception study on St Vincent. Despite a high confidence in the volcanologists, it was found that there was a low saliency (level of importance) towards the hazards of Campi Flegrei, lack of awareness of the risks, and little information regarding the hazards and risks. There was also a low confidence in the local authorities, which hints that preparedness for a future potential volcanic crisis at Campi Flegrei is low. It was surprising the similarities of their results to mine.

This is not to say that the exposed population is not prepared, but it has and will need continued discussions between volcanologists, local authorties and the community in order to increase the preparedness level. There is time to improve preparedness, it is just a matter of clear communication lines between the different stakeholders.

Final thoughts

We can never fully predict how people interpret and react to our research. It perhaps depends on how we communicate our research, by addressing uncertainty and expressing that all efforts are being made to prepare everyone. The paper that stirred up this fuss in itself was interesting science but that was not fully appreciated, mainly due to when changing our research for the public domain, all the important terminology, methods and explanations can be lost, simply because the public do not know the science how we volcanologists know it. Due to the recent topic of fake news, knowing which source is trustworthy may play a greater role in communicating risk in the future. As scientists, our research needs to be clear, and media needs to think more about being sincere in the information that they take from us, not take it just to sell papers.

I would be very interested to hear from people who also saw this news and if you are a volcanologist, did you get any questions? (e.g. can I still go on holiday there).



Acocella V., Di Lorenzo R., Newhall C. and Scandone R. (2015) Caldera unrest: knowledge and perspectives. Rev. Geophys. Vol. 53. Pg. 896-955.

Chiodini G., Paonita A., Aiuppa A., Costa A., Caliro S., De Martino P., Acocella V. and Vandemeulebrouck J. (2016) Magmas near the critical degassing pressure drive volcanic unrest towards a critical state. Nature Communications. Vol. 7. Pg. 1-9 [online]

Francis P. and Oppenheimer C. (2004) Volcanoes. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mason B.G., Pyle D.M. and Oppenheimer C. (2004) The size and frequency of the largest explosive eruptions on Earth. Bulletin of Volcanology. Vol. 66. Pg. 735-748.

Miller C.F. and Wark D.A. (2008) Supervolcanoes and their explosive supereruptions. Elements. Vol. 4. Pg. 11-16.

Papael P., Moretti R. and Barbato D. (2006) The compositional dependence of the saturation surface of H2O+CO2 fluids in silicate melts. Chem. Geol. Vol. 229. Pg. 78-95.

Ricci T., Barberi F., Davis M.S., Isaia R. and Nave R. (2013) Volcanic risk perception in the Campi Flegrei area. Journal of volcanology and geothermal research. Vol. 254. Pg. 118-130.

Segall P. (2013) Volcano deformation and eruption forecasting. London: Geological Society, Special Publications.

Self S. (2006) The effects and consequences of very large explosive volcanic eruptions. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A. Vol. 364. Pg. 2073-2097.

Sparks R.S.J., Self S., Grattan J.P., Oppenheimer C., Pyle D.M. and Rymer H. (2005) Super-eruptions: global effects and future threats. London: Geological Society of London Working Group, The Geological Society.

Mental health and disasters.

Natural and man-made disasters happen year upon year. We see them reported in the news, with varying degrees (a discussion for another time). We can see the physical damage these disasters produce: damage to property and the environment, injuries and loss of lives, displacement and the local economy is disrupted.

But what is rarely portrayed is a hidden impact: the mental health related implications that arise in the approaching disaster (for example where a hazard gives a warning beforehand and is slow approaching, like a hurricane) and its aftermath. The short-term response and recovery may not be able to capture these issues because sometimes they occur beyond the standardised recovery programs (I touched upon this in my community resilience article).

I mentioned in my community resilience article the 2003 bushfires in East Gippsland in South Australia. Mainly because it is just such a good example of the mental health issues that can and do occur. The study described how local health practices saw an increased number of post-traumatic stress cases and also stress and anxiety, which became more apparent for those who chose to remain behind and defend their properties under the ‘Prepare, Stay and Defend or Leave Early’ policy (which has since been revised following the 2009 bushfires).

Image by Fairfax (2003).
Fairfax (2003). The text reads: “Showing the strain: an exhausted firefighter takes a breather in Bunyip State Park.”

It is not restricted to natural disasters. Even man-made disasters cause mental health complications. Any war and conflict (any activity you can think of associated with conflict…it effects someone’s son, daughter, mother or father) is overwhelmingly traumatic; disease epidemics, the most prominent recently was the Ebola Crisis, putting victims through suffering before eventually dying. Imagine how it would effect you seeing someone you care about dying and you could not do anything to help them.

Image by Moore J./Getty Images (2014).
Image by Moore J./Getty Images (2014).

Chemical/industrial incidents also would induce psychological damage, the one I remember from my undergraduate days was the Bhopal disaster which the local population, 30 years on, still suffers and as far as I am aware, still fighting for justice (I will not put in an image of a victim…it would be too stomach-churning for some…you can Google images if you prefer).

Image by AFP (2009). This photo was from a protest marking the 25 year anniversary of the disaster.
Image by AFP (2009). This photo was from a protest marking the 25 year anniversary of the disaster.

How would you tackle such a problem? Mental health at present outside of the disaster context is still not fully represented. Foreign aid always brings in the physical necessities and money but I think directing some resources to Councillors and health professionals that will be dealing with the long-term impacts that go beyond the humanitarian aid window is important. Do not get me wrong, there is such a service available, but to what extent and where it is, is not as certain for me to tell you.

If the mental health issues are not fully addressed, what would the consequences be?

I would like mental health related consequences arising from disasters to be addressed more between the disaster managing practitioners and academics. Research is becoming more interdisciplinary, so why cannot we get more disciplines involved in studying populations exposed to hazards? Unless I am wrong. Maybe there is but it has not landed on my radar yet. I am no psychologist but I have chosen to make psychological concepts part of what I must learn as a social volcanologist-in training. Beyond the PhD, I would like to do a study on mental health and volcanic eruptions, but that is if I have a future in academia after it!

It will be hard. Some of these effects will be long-lived and what if the disaster strikes again within the person’s lifetime? That person may become completely ill-equipped mentally to cope and would have been failed by those that have ignored the invisible impact of disasters.

It needs to be talked about more. Mental health is important to maintain, especially if one is exposed to very stressful situations like natural and man-made hazards.

The 2013 Humber storm surge and community resilience

The department I am situated in: Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences (GEES for short) has a blog site and currently doing a mini-series exploring the various aspects of the impacts of the Humber Estuary storm surge in December 2013.

Part 1 is on modelling storm surge:

Part 2 is on what was learned from the event:

This week was my turn, and I talked about different forms of resilience, mental health and going from a reactive to a proactive country towards our main natural hazard.

The original post is here:

Storm Surge 2013 : One Year On – Part Three : Community Resilience

In Part 2 last week, the blog looked at some of the lessons learnt a year on after the 5 December 2013 storm surge in the Humber. This week the post come from guest blogger Jazmin Scarlett. Jazmin is a PhD student with a specialism in natural hazard response and mitigation, and offers her insights from her experience in how communities respond after natural disasters. In this post we expand our look, out of the Humber Estaury and southwards along the east coast of the UK, to Boston.

By Jazmin Scarlett

On the night of 5 December 2013 the Humber Estuary experienced its worst floods ‘since 1953.’ The main natural hazard that the country must co-exist with is flooding, and this post is going to discuss how despite its rather common occurrence across the country, we, as the British people, are not considering every factor when trying to mitigate and adapt to it.

In December 2014, £2.3billion was granted to the defence against flooding to protect 300,000 homes. We have known how bad flooding can get in this country and yet, in my opinion, the response has been rather slow. Even then, throwing money at the situation needs to be managed carefully and should address all the problems, not just the ones that everyone can physically see.

The BBC Look North special report a year after the 2013 storm surge it showed how the people of Boston have been coping with some of the often unreported effects of flooding. Some people’s businesses were still suffering, some people’s homes were still being repaired, and some, unfortunately, were experiencing mental health problems. It is not unusual for mental health problems to arise after events like 5 December 2013, in fact it should be expected and mitigated for. It depends on a certain number of factors. One depends on factors, such as the actual experience the individual had: for example, farmers who lost their livelihoods and saw the deaths of their livestock in the 2003 East Gippsland bushfires in Victoria, Australia, experienced shock and post-traumatic stress (Whittaker et al., 2012). Those in Boston who lost properties and are still waiting for their lives to return back to normal told Look North that they are experiencing depression.

Another depends on the individual’s (and the community’s) coping strategies in terms of psychosocial resilience and physical mitigation strategies (Cashman and Cronin, 2008). Physical mitigation strategies usually involve engineering solutions such as the Thames Barrier, monitoring systems such as the Flood Alerts provided by the Environment Agency and land-use restrictions (potentially exacerbated by properties being built on floodplains). These physical solutions are far more obvious than psychosocial resilience, not just for flooding but for other hazards as well. Taylor (1999, in Cashman and Cronin, 2008) states that adaptations for community recovery from a disaster largely depends on simple explanations for the occurrence of an “inconceivable” event.

It appears only when push comes to shove, when we lose properties, livelihoods, lives and money do we react to the hazard. Why must it be only when the hazard has occurred and caused all the damage that we say “we should do something about this.”

Another angle to this could be why can we not co-exist with the hazard? Kelman and Mather’s (2008) paper looks at how people living with volcanoes can become more resilient but I believe it rings true for flooding and other hazards as well. It details a ‘sustainable livelihoods approach’ in which they state that to live with the risk means accepting that the hazard is a usual part of life and that rather just surviving or reacting to the extreme event when it occurs, living with the risk allows the community to create and maintain habitats as well as livelihoods which might lead to the hazard becoming less of a danger and more integrated into day-to-day life.

We are a very resourceful species and certainly in this country have the knowledge of flooding impacts but why are we not more proactive about it? Members of the Department of GEES, University of Hull research various aspects of flooding, and other hazards. An aspect of this is education: I have always been passionate that all individuals at risk of hazards ought not be ignorant to that risk, and part of that is engaging communities in mitigating against our ‘public enemy number one’.
There are psychological means to try and explain why people are ‘caught by surprise’ by a hazard, but in reality that should not be the case. I will give an example that I touched upon in my Masters’ thesis.

It is a concept called ‘saliency’ – we make sense and prioritise our daily issues/threats. I do not think about flooding every day. Why should I? It not is looming over the horizon right now and I have other things to worry about. I have to think about managing my money and my disability. I worry about my grandmother. I hope my parents are coping with being parents to four newly adopted kids. I hope my best friend is doing alright in her new job. I concern myself with personal aspects of my life. Every person will be concerned about different things, based on what they value most. I value the wellbeing of my family and friends most. I myself, have been fortunate enough to not experience a flood so therefore, I will take no further action until the hazard is impending and will threaten the safety of my friends and colleagues.

It is not all bad. The floods in Boston fostered social cohesion and a form of community resilience. In the face of adversity, neighbours who barely knew one another came together to use their own skills, knowledge and goodwill as a joint force to help ease and spread the stress of the situation and get everyone out of danger. After the event, the common ground these people shared is the experience of surviving the potentially life threatening situation. The social cohesion will now continue and hopefully live on to continue aiding one another when eventually the authorities leave and no longer offer the short-term recovery support. The aid could be physical: helping rebuild properties. People often fail to realise that counsel is just as important as physical aid. Local practices will experience an increased number of mental health related cases but sometimes, the social cohesion, the fact that the person was physically there, experiencing what they were experiencing, can be a useful and powerful recovery mechanism.

Social cohesion is also not a new concept to the government and researchers in this country. There are several governmental reports on it. An example is: “Guidance on the duty to promote community cohesion.” You just need to read the title to know how prominent it has been on the agenda. Even the House of Commons has a collection of reports on it and there are researchers looking at resilience against flooding here in the UK.

So if the government has been trying to be proactive in fostering social cohesion as a form of community resilience, why does it appear to be reactive? In all honesty, resilience is hard to measure unlike vulnerability and risk (even then they can be hard to measure). You will not know how effective the community resilience is or where to improve it until the hazard event occurs. I am researching resilience in volcanic environments and although there are indicators to help identify its presence, I do not know how resilient the communities are unless I observe it in a volcanic crisis. And that is a little dangerous.

I believe that the floods experienced in 2013, along with every other major flooding event this country has faced, have largely provoked a reaction to them. In the short-term, money is put in to physical mitigation against it and the short-term recovery programs. If this country is to overcome these ‘surprises,’ more effort needs to be made on being proactive, actively engaging in mitigation and adaptation between flood events. A lot could get done on the community scale in that time, yet it would require the support of everyone. However, people will turn mainly to what they believe will bring them security: the physical presence of flood defences.

Let the authorities deal with that, but get the community involved as well, it will foster another form of community resilience: social networks. Giving the community a sense of empowerment and confidence to prepare will help them mentally cope with the arrival of another flood event and hopefully, lead the country into being proactive and not reactive against our main natural hazard threat.

Whittaker J., Handmer J. and Mercer D. (2012) Vulnerability to Bushfires in Rural Australia: a Case Study from East Gippsland, Victoria. Journal of Rural Studies. Vol. 28. Pg. 161-173.

Cashman K.V. and Cronin S.J. (2008) Welcoming a Monster to the World: Myths, Oral Tradition and Modern Societal Response to Volcanic Disasters. Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research. Vol. 176. Pg. 407-418.

Kelman I. and Mather T.A. (2008) Living with Volcanoes: the Sustainable Livelihoods Approach for Volcano-Related Opportunities. Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research. Vol. 172. Pg. 189-198.

‘Paradise tax’

I wrote this article back in November. I certainly feel comfortable linking disaster management, society and volcanology.

‘Paradise tax’: the price Hawaiians are prepared to pay for living near volcanoes

By Jazmin Scarlett, University of Hull!/img/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/article_970/usa-hawaii-lava-flow.jpg
Image by EPA (2014).


The destruction caused by the lava of Kilauea are grabbing the attention of the international media. Last week, footage showed this eruption claiming its first house in Pahoa and people began to question whether to try to halt the flow of lava and how you might go about it.

But the daughter of the family’s home that was destroyed was remarkably sanguine about losing the family home:

If you’re going to live on a volcano, it’s about her (the Hawaiian Goddess Pele), not us … if she wants her land back, then get out of the way. I like to call it ‘paradise tax’.

The volcano is part of their culture. Pele is such a dominant force in Hawaiian’s lives they tend to accept the possibility that it might erupt. For a lot of Hawaiians, their respect for the volcano god appears to override their fear of eruptions.

For instance, the now-displaced family is building another home on older, solidified lava. Hawaii is entirely volcanic due to being situated on a hot spot resulting in a continual output of volcanic material. As far as I am aware, the family did not have insurance. This shows their ability to bounce back and recover from a hazardous event.

Not everyone responds in the same way. Some people are scared, some panic or remain anxious. And yet Hawaiian people have dealt with Kilauea’s almost continuous eruption for more than 50 years now. Over the course of many generations, they are actively learning about the volcano and the risks it poses.

Hawaii hasn’t lost many lives to the lava of Kilauea – mainly because the lava flows are slow (due to a combination of its properties and the land it flows over) – slow enough, at least, for people to respond in time and adjust to the situation (for example evacuating like the Pahoa family did a month before their home was destroyed) but also because of the combined efforts of the public, the civil defence and government authorities.

To date, Kilauea has destroyed more than 200 properties, many roads and claimed the lives of four people in modern times. Historically, the largest number killed by a Mount Kilauea explosion was in 1790, ranging from 80-400 people, a number still being debated.

Someone’s got your back

The civil defence teams, with the combined efforts of volcanologists and all those involved in keeping the people safe, have experience in how to deal with and adapt to the ever-evolving situation. A recent update shows a collective calm and professionalism, presenting the information in a way that Hawaiians can comprehend.

The risk of property being destroyed is neither exaggerated nor underestimated. The authorities explain the risk by presenting as much information as available – and Hawaiians tend to trust that the authorities are being realistic. This feeds into how people learn and assess the risk to themselves and their properties.

Business as usual

At present there appears to be little chance of halting the advancing lava flow. The properties of the lava and external influences, such as the steepness of the terrain, mean that the point at which the lava flow might stop naturally is not yet apparent.

What has been shown in news bulletins are the more runny lava flows that volcanologists call “pāhoehoe” (the “hoe” meaning “to paddle” in Hawaiian) but this is not representative of the reality of the eruption which is producing more viscous, slower moving lava (“aʻā”). As in Italy and Iceland there have been attempts to stop lava flows in Hawaii but with mixed results. For instance, according to a report in NPR, a US$2m engineering project successfully diverted lava flows near Mount Etna in 1983. But a similar attempt in Hawaii in 1955 and 1960, however, failed because of lack of proper understanding of the situation.

Given the effectiveness of the volcanic hazard management system in place in Hawaii, I have no doubt that such attempts will be made if they are reasonable, through the combined efforts of volcanologists, engineers, the civil defence and a guaranteed investment for the project.

But in case the Hawaiian authorities don’t succeed in halting or diverting the eruption and the flow of lava, we mustn’t underestimate the power of Hawaiian culture and belief to deal with such volcanoes. Living in such parts of the world, disaster resilience is not an urgency but a way of life.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.