Risk communication and perception



Haynes, Barclay and Pidgeon wrote further about this topic in the Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research in 2008. Here I list points from this article that enlarge the Bulletin of Volcanology findings summarised above:


1. Local Montserrat politicians understandably try to avoid association with unpopular decisions, such as evacuations, whatever their private views.


2. The outreach activities of the scientists have decreased substantially since the early years of the eruption. This can be misunderstood by some residents to mean that the volcano is less of a danger than before. The new SRU/IPGP management of MVO plans to increase outreach substantially in the near future and on 29 January 2009 they launched their new outreach plan, called "Living with our volcano".


3. Volcanology is an inherently uncertain branch of science. The volcano offers only limited clues to observers (e.g. seismicity, escaping gases) as to what is going on in its depths. Local politicians dislike this uncertainty and use it to rationalise general mistrust of the scientists.


4. Scientists, Governors and local politicians tend to differ on the crucial point of what level of risk is acceptable for residents.


5. Residents with very large investments in property and livelihoods in Salem and the surrounding area are inclined to minimise their estimates of volcanic risk in that region. They are also becoming progressively more assertive as amateur volcanologists, based on almost 15 years of experiencing Soufrière Hills volcano (SHV) activity.


6. As the years of the eruption go by, precautionary temporary evacuations have been generating progressively greater tensions and dissent. The noisy disagreement of articulate (mostly wealthier) residents cannot be missed. But a quieter and more subtle problem is the risk taken by a small number of predominantly underprivileged Montserratians who quietly defy the Exclusion Zone rules in order to look after property, livestock etc. This group already suffered casualties in 1997. Go to Topic 9 for details of a similar situation (but of course perfectly legal) at Trants in 2010, involving a ~200 metre near-miss of a pig farm's livestock sheds by a huge series of PFs and their accompanying surges.


Hayes, Barclay and Pidgeon summarised their 2008 findings on the risk communication process during the Montserrat eruption by means of Fig. 6. If this looks complex, than so is Montserrat society in the face of the endless eruption. If island residents can see reasons why this diagram should be simpler (or more complex!), why not use the discussion page of this website to publish your thoughts?



 Fig. 6


The conclusion of the risk communication research is that Montserrat residents fall into three main groups: most Montserrat residents fall into three main groups: the majority broadly accept the findings of the scientists (encouraged to do so by religious and media leaders) and will evacuate as/when government deems it necessary; a minority challenge the scientists and prefer to make their own decisions about evacuations, although my current impression is that the events during the latest 2009-2010 volcanic activity have tended to persuade even the extreme hazard sceptics that SHV -- with its biggest-ever lava dome and sudden explosions and collapses --  demands to be taken very seriously in the Salem, Olveston, Old Towne, Frith area; another adult minority feel excluded from the whole risk communication process and are driven quietly to ignore the Exclusion Zone boundaries for economic reasons. Increasing help for this minority to build more successful lives in the north of the island is the most obvious priority for risk reduction. Finally, the entire emphasis of this sort of risk communication study is on adults, despite the large numbers of children and teenagers on the island. I focus on this group, and the special problems they present, in Topic 9.


Perhaps the most important message to give the other dissenting group is that it is not, repeat not, written anywhere in tablets of stone that an erupting volcano will always give adequate warning before it moves to a new unpleasant phase of activity, such as an explosive lava dome collapse. Although the Governor’s Office, Montserrat and UK governments are routinely accused of being excessively risk averse, the current (2010) occupation of areas around Lower Belham Valley that are well within the modelled range of pyroclastic surges from explosive collapse of the present Soufrière Hills summit lava dome is deliberately accepting a very small but non-zero level of risk. As also currently takes place on the lower slopes of Merapi volcano, Indonesia, this is a bold social experiment.



Fig. 7  Should Montserrat volcanic risk warnings be as blunt and obvious as their AIDS warnings (Steph Flude)?

Is this approach the best way to protect lives?