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When a volcano threatens: UCL pioneers new warnings of eruptions

By Guest Blogger, on 19 September 2018

By Christopher Kilburn, Director, UCL Hazard Centre, UCL Earth Sciences

Earlier this month, Dr Christopher Kilburn , Dr Danielle Charlton and Lara Smale (UCL Earth Sciences) presented at the Cities on Volcanoes Conference (COV) in Naples, Italy. Here, Christopher blogs about the experience and UCL’s pioneering research into designing forecasts of volcanic eruptions and their impact. 

Understanding how volcanoes behave is just the first step in reducing their threat. The next is to understand the views of the people who have made a volcano their home. Tackling both together is the aim of the Cities on Volcanoes conferences – two-yearly events that are held near an active volcano. This September we gathered in the southern Italian city of Naples, which has survived more than 2,000 years sandwiched between Vesuvius and Campi Flegrei.

UCL was strongly represented by the Departments of Earth Sciences, Science and Technology Studies and Computer Science, where we presented on topics that included forecasting eruptions, designing interactive hazard maps and low-cost monitoring equipment, and using art and the theatre to improve warnings of volcanic activity.

UCL Hazard Centre

The common link is the UCL Hazard Centre (UHC), in Earth Sciences, which for twenty years has been opening new pathways in forecasting volcanic eruptions and communicating about their hazard.

The conference also provided a unique opportunity for early-career researchers to meet practitioners who have had to react to volcanic crises. Ask Dr Danielle Charlton from the UHC.

“A really important aspect of conferences like these is listening to the experiences of fellow scientists who have been directly involved in a volcanic emergency,” she says.

“We heard from the scientists and officials who responded to eruptions at Mount Agung, in Indonesia, Kilauea, in Hawaii, and Fuego, in Guatemala – all within the last twelve months. Learning from these experiences has shaped how I approach my own research, as well as bringing real examples to what we teach on our postgraduate hazard programmes in Earth Sciences.”

Importance of communication

PhD researcher, Lara Smale (UHC) agrees. “The conference was a wonderful opportunity to meet researchers working on volcanoes that embrace a wide range of social and environmental conditions. Common themes were the importance of communication between stakeholders before an eruption and ensuring that applied research meets the needs of end-users. In short, science is not done until it is communicated.”

We learned, too, that successful communication can take advantage of art as well as science.

This theme was promoted by Drs Carina Fearnley and Chiara Ambrosio (UCL Science and Technology Studies) who pointed out that artists “possess unique and novel ways to engage with highly complex concepts and ideas” and “are able to address deeply political and contingent issues that scientists may either overlook or be unable to incorporate.”

Historical links 

The return to Naples was poignant. UCL has had links with Neapolitan volcanoes for more than 100 years. In 1891, Henry Johnston-Lavis (UCL Medicine) produced the first geological map of Vesuvius (copies of which are held in Earth Sciences, as well as at the Vesuvius Observatory, the oldest volcano observatory in the world).

In 1984, Prof. John Guest (UCL Physics & Astronomy and Earth Sciences) advised the UK Ministry of Defence on responding to a volcanic crisis in Campi Flegrei (which in the end did not erupt); and today the UCL Hazard Centre and Royal Academy of Dramatic Art are leading interdisciplinary studies on volcanic warnings at Campi Flegrei, in collaboration with local cultural associations, the University of Naples and the Vesuvius Observatory.

It is a proud tradition and a firm foundation for the next 100 years of success.