Tag Archives: media

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’

the-daily-mail

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

the-guardian

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?!).

Perceptions

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.

naples
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).

Jazmin

References

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] http://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms13712

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.

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‘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

http://assets.nydailynews.com/polopoly_fs/1.2006229!/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.