For scientists who want to reduce volcanic hazards, finding out what's going on inside the risky mountains is only half the battle. Getting people to act on that knowledge is another kind of challenge.
Many inhabitants of Montserrat ignore warnings to evacuate that Caribbean island in the face of ongoing eruptions. Villagers cultivate the slopes of Popocatpetl near Mexico City while the volcano spits rocks and ash. And on Mauna Loa in Hawaii, developers wind roads around volcanic cones and build houses on its steep slopes while the mountain oozes lava over some of their earlier efforts.
There is a strong emotional reluctance to abandon one's home or community. It also can seem reasonable for people who have lived with a volcano for generations to believe they can continue to cope with their restless neighbor. And when the possibility of danger seems less than imminent, the costs of changing established living patterns and of restricting development loom large.
Geologist Donald Swanson at the US Geological Survey (USGS) Hawaii Volcano Observatory puts it this way: "When you mesh natural hazards with politics, economics, development, etc., it's a recipe from which it's hard to make an edible dish." That, he adds, is why Hawaii has emergency response plans in place for Mauna Loa but little volcano-sensitive land-use planning.
This is supposed to be the United Nations International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction. But people living with lively mountains tend to forget that, while volcanic forces are natural, lack of risk-aversion planning puts humans unnecessarily in harm's way. The volcanologists' task is to get an entire community to see this.
"With volcanoes, warning can really make a difference," says Marianne Guffant, coordinator of the USGS volcanic hazards program in Reston, Va. A decade of cooperative planning involving scientists and the local community minimized fatalities in Papua New Guinea when Mt. Rabaul finally erupted in 1994. Twelve people died, as opposed to 500 in the 1937 eruptions.
It's harder to get public attention when the danger is subtle and unseen. But it can be done as in the case of Mt. Rainier in Washington State. Volcanic heat is melting the mountain's decorative snow cap from below. Melt water rots underlying rock. Eventually, this can suddenly give way releasing a fast-moving mudflow that carries all in its path. Seattle and Tacoma are at risk even though the mountain seems calm. Detailed research has persuaded planners to begin to steer development away from valleys and other areas likely to channel any mudflow.
Volcanologist Michael Sheridan at the State University of New York at Buffalo says he thinks Veracruz and surrounding territory face a similar risk from El Pico de Orizaba in Mexico. People there, he says, "are probably not even afraid of the volcano." It's been a peaceful neighbor. He expects to begin research next spring on the extent of any mudflow hazard. He hopes to raise public awareness of any danger he finds.
The USGS has identified some 564 active volcanoes around the world. Some geophysicists think there may be at least three times that many. In some cases, people have lived with the volcanoes for centuries. In other cases, population growth and development have brought people into a volcano's vicinity fairly recently. Often, the hazard the volcanoes present is poorly known. Even when geologists are concerned, wise planning often is lacking.
Preparations for Mt. Rabaul's eruption in Papua New Guinea and the new planning around Mt. Rainier are showcase examples. But if this Decade of Natural Disaster Reduction is to have any significant success as far as volcanoes are concerned, more than scientific research is needed. That research has to wake up communities to possible danger. And the scientists who often would rather research than muck into politics have to join with the rest of the community to find the will to do something about it.