The Future of Volcanic Eruptions: Some Thoughts

27 February 2014 by Robin Wylie, posted in General

The relationship between humans and volcanoes is changing. In the past, deaths from eruptions have paled in comparison to those from other natural hazards. But a rising global population is pushing more and more people into the path of future volcanic disasters.

Nowhere illustrates this change more clearly than Indonesia. Of the 550 or so active volcanoes on the Earth's surface, an astonishing number around 130 are clustered on the narrow islands of this densely populated archipelago. It's already the fourth most populous nation on the planet, and, as Indonesia continues to swell, the persistent volcanic eruptions it continues to suffer are set to affect increasing numbers of its citizens.

This change is already underway. In 2010, an eruption at Mount Merapi — a particularly active peak on Java, the most densely populated of Indonesia's islands — became the first eruption in history to affect, directly or indirectly, more than a million people*. Furthermore, on top of the 350 deaths it caused, this eruption displaced a staggering 400,000 people or more. In just the last few months, fatal eruptions at Mount Kelud — also on Java — and Sumatra's Mount Sinabung, have similarly affected tens to hundreds of thousands of people.

The dangers posed by humanity's growing proximity to volcanoes need no emphasis. There are no upsides. There are, however, some interesting and potentially useful consequences.

More people living close to volcanoes can mean more casualties. But it can also mean more witnesses. Witnesses who  with today's profusion of smartphones and social media — are now able to document and share what they see. Volcanologists have a new tool in twitter. Before the paid reporters arrive, before the scientists can gather their gear, informative tweets (taken, of course, with a good pinch of salt) are now often among the first signs that next big eruption is underway.

The real-time narrative offered by twitter, and social media in general, is particularly well suited to the purposes of volcano monitoring. This is because volcanic eruptions differ from other natural disasters in one key respect: they linger. Hurricanes and tsunamis might be more deadly, but they're over in a flash; it's clear when the danger has passed. Volcanoes are not so obliging: eruptions may have an obvious beginning, but a definite end is often hard to discern. Minor activity can rumble on for months, pause, restart, pause again — and the big blast could still be on the horizon.

It's this aspect of volcanic eruptions that mobile social media is especially well placed to address. Volcanologists cannot stay on a mountain indefinitely. News crews get bored. But the locals, and their smartphones, remain. Of course, social media is a crude way to gather data; it's no substitute for scientific instrumentation. But it shows promise as a complimentary way to study volcanoes, and their immediate to long-term effects on the people who live in their shadow.

As a growing global population falls ever further under the influence of volcanoes, it will be interesting — perhaps even important — to see how these same people, in documenting their plight, might aid future efforts in hazard reduction.


* Source: Dr Peter Baxter, The University of Cambridge.


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