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.
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.
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] 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.