Tag Archives: volcanic risk perceptions

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] 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.

Dominance of nature versus a volcano/culture versus nature?

*This is a work in progress, and is a documentation of my thought processes on an argument…so bare with me with any inaccuracies.

This morning, I came up with an interesting observation from my current data, the data from my MSc thesis, a cultural observation and the literature.

A mentality that I believe has an Imperialist/colonial legacy, is apparent not just here but throughout the Caribbean that nature is there to be dominated. It can be observed all around, with the conversion of the forests into plantations, villages that are on and around the mountains (particularly on the Leeward side), and tunnels cutting through possibly, geologically important areas. Does this cultural trait, in combination of other factors (that I am still trying to piece together), create the certain geoculture I am beginning to piece together?

Social housing for those displaced by hurricanes. This little hamlet is just beyond Byera Village on the Windward side of the island, where I stayed for my MSc fieldwork in 2014. In the background would be Mt Brisbane, an extinct volcanic centre.


A volcano cannot be “controlled” like a river, which can be culverted like a stream has over here for the construction of the Argyle International Airport. From what I have observed in the data, La Soufrière’s eruptions (and likely other volcanoes as well), have led to a feeling of awe, fear/dread and helplessness. It has prompted religious responses and interpretations. Interestingly, there was an increased number of marriages following the 1902 eruption (I was surprised when I came across that information!) 45 % of 100 people questioned for my MSc study on risk perceptions, believed God was in control of its eruptions and there is a lack of self-confidence in their preparedness and self-efficacy in the case of a future volcanic crisis. There is an attitude that there is a lack of interest in personal preparedness, but a high demand in those in authority to “do something”. Are these feelings connected to a need to dominate nature, but for a volcano and its impacts, it cannot be dominated?

Helpless man
Jai (1979) The Soufriere experience. Published in ‘The Star’ on the 28th April 1979.
In the ‘Annual colonial report for St Vincent 1902-1903’ held at The National Archive and Document Service of St Vincent and the Grenadines.

I would love people’s thoughts on this. Have you come across this in your work? What am I missing? Am I talking utter nonsense?

That is all for now


On giving my first guest lecture

Yesterday at 2pm to 3pm I delivered my very first guest lecture. I was a nervous wreck and honestly do not entirely know why. Maybe because I was teaching second year students something. Maybe because the lecturer(s) who invited me were keen to hear to what I had to say.

Or maybe because it was my own research and it is only now that my own thoughts are being heralded as ‘good’ so I was spooked that someone actually cared.

But I am being hard on myself.

So this all began when I got the results back from my masters dissertation which was ‘Volcanic Risk Perceptions of La Soufrière, St. Vincent.’ I got a distinction and I was so ecstatic with myself and realised I had an undergraduate lecturer to thank. The lecturer in question (I will not name them just so I do not spook them! Although I am sure this will get to them somehow…) inspired me as a physical geographer, to combine the world of disaster management and particularly the various aspects of community resilience (pretty sure I have given it away now).

So I emailed them with the dissertation attached as a thank you. Almost got emotional but I tried to remain professional, since I had then started my PhD.

They emailed me back saying how great and detailed it was and did I mind coming in to talk to the second year students on the ‘Warning and Informing for Environmental Hazards’ module (yep, given it away now) about it. So after a few exchanges with the current lecturer on the module, I had the date and time. The room location was a little last minute but meh details.

So. This trip was nostalgic. I remember how much I enjoyed and engaged with the warning and informing module and setting foot back onto the campus felt really odd. It is approaching 4 years ago I was an undergraduate at Coventry University. Now I stepped onto the campus with a BSc and a MSc and now doing a PhD.

You can almost smell the nostalgia.
You can almost smell the nostalgia.

One thing that confused me though is that the entrance to the George Elliott building that I used to walk through was no longer there! Literally had a good 30 seconds of “Oh God…WHERE IS THE DOOR?!”

This came across my thoughts for a split second. Not going to lie.

Anyway, after I did find the door I went down (or up? Across?) memory lane when finding the lecturer. Ran into some old faces. Felt really weird.

But the lecturer/PhD student Craig (he is not the inspiring individual I talked about earlier…sorry Craig) was very reassuring when I said I was nervous and we certainly talked about some of the good old times as he was just starting out as a PhD student in my final year.

So the time eventually arrived where we wondered over to the enter confusing (but not as confusing as the Cohen building here at Hull Uni) William Morris building. This building had changed too…luckily the doors were still in the right place.

Found the room and my goodness there was a horrid smell of rotting/fermented/whatever-the-hell-it-was-doing fish. A nice welcome!

Craig, myself…every student entering the room pulled the same expression.

There was also an awkward pillar in the middle of the room. Ah how I missed the impractical rooms. Luckily, I had dual projectors!

So after fumigating the room and a student evaluation form, Craig introduced me and I was let loose.

Not visible to everyone in the room but I was interally panicking. I have no idea why! But I eased into it as I did know what I was talking about. Sure, I stumbled over some of my words and I am sure I forgot to breathe at some point but this was practice. I am speaking at a conference next month…so yeah. Had to suck it up.

The students had just come back from a fieldtrip (good ol’ Slapton!) and yes I was very conscience of the fact that some were fiddling with their phones but at the same time I knew they were listening. I got them to do a quick task of what is hazardous about Coventry to test their perceptions, asked questions about what they could see with the results I was showing and their thoughts on the implications of warning and informing on St. Vincent in regards to the volcanic risk perceptions and I managed to get some good responses! Granted, I was teaching them a complex issue but they seemed to get it (mostly because they had a lecture on risk perceptions before their fieldtrip).

And at the end of the talk, there were questions asked and some good suggestions on how you might go about engaging the populations who do not participate in workshops in order to reduce the generational gap in knowledge I found. Even got a career-type question (and a bit of praise from Craig) on how I ended up where I am now.

So overall, I felt so relieved getting it done and it was great practice. And I shall be reflective right now:

  • Try and calm yourself before giving a talk, it can show when talking!
  • Students may appear not to be listening but you might be surprised!
  • Do not freak out if the entrance you used to go through no longer exists anymore.
  • Embrace the fact that you are now an early-career academic and perhaps might inspire others to follow suit one day (into volcanology I hope!).
  • Having someone who inspires you to become an academic is always a good thing, man or woman.

So thank you El Parker for giving me the opportunity…see you soon!

(Brownie points to all my undergrad buddies who knew the person I was talking about!)