Monday, May 1, 2017

Why do we act after a disaster, and not before?

- Janine

Photo shared by @Mikel_Jollett.
Right now is a time of deep reflection for many of us. People are taking to the streets marching and advocating for human rights, for science, and for protecting our planet. Tens of thousands of people, around the planet, together.

I love this sign 'At the start of every disaster movie there's a scientist being ignored'. Usually in a disaster movie there is some person trying to silence the scientist (who is trying to warn of impending disaster) is portrayed as the bad guy, and often succumbs to the disaster itself. Now, it is important in reality to have people asking the hard questions and looking at all sides of an issue (this does not make them a bad guy), and so many threats do not lead to disaster. In movie-world we know in hindsight that the scientist was right and everyone should have listened to them. So why isn't it so obvious in reality? Why do we ignore so many scientists saying things like 'it's when, not if, the disaster will occur'.

A big question at the moment is 'is science political?'. In the case of natural hazards sciences the answer appears to be yes. If science points out an issue (let's say, like an impending disaster) then it is up to local and national governments to actually do something about it. If there is a huge amount of air pollution that results in the deaths of those unfortunate enough to live in it (see the Donora tragedy in 1948, where 20 people died and 6,000-14,000 became ill), then policies are made to say that industry has to adapt. Quoting Marcia Spink from the EPA 'Before Donora, people thought of smog as a nuisance. It made your shirts dirty, The Donora tragedy was a wake-up call. People realized that smog could kill." Events like this lead efforts around the world to put regulations in place to keep us all safe. When science works with politics lives can be improved and saved.

Why do we wait until a disaster to act, then only a few decades down the track forget why it matters so much?

Let me point out that a disaster is not a disaster unless an event is interacting with us - people. No people, no disaster.

On 16 March 1980, Mount St. Helens began to show signs of activity, and only a few short months later on 18 May 1980, disaster struck killing 57 people, destroying 595 square kilometers (230 square miles) of forest, damaged 27 bridges and nearly 200 homes (USGS Fact Sheet). This cost the USA an estimated $1.1 Billion (list of the cost of volcanic eruptions in the USA). This was only 37 years ago, many people around the world remember this eruption. Many countries face these losses and costs from natural disasters much more frequently than most of us realize. Monitoring costs money, but the benefits far outweigh the costs

News coverage on May 18, 1980, on the Mount St Helens eruption. KOMO News 4.

It didn't take long for people (who weren't personally affected) to forget about Mount St. Helens. In 2009 'something called volcano monitoring' was under attack in the US. This came only 18 years after the U.S.-based Volcano Disaster Assistance Program (VDAP) worked with the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (PHIVOLCS) to successfully forecast the second largest eruption of the 20th century and evacuate 200,000 people, including the nearby U.S. Clark Air Base (more here).

While on a FEMA Volcanic Crises Awareness course the course leader, volcanologist Bruce Houghton said something that I have repeated many times. In a room of 15-20 people he
said if he were to tell us that there was to be a devastating earthquake in a few minutes and only 20% (paraphrasing from memory here) of us were to survive... *pause* ... I bet each one of you believes you are in that 20%. He was right. In that short pause each one of us had come up with a good reason as to why we would be one of the few survivors, even faced with such a small chance of survival. Closest to a door, run faster than others, jump under the desk... We all quickly 'calculated' [completely guessed] our own personal risk. We have a sort of positivity bias that allows us to believe that although disaster does strike, even a room full of people who study disasters find it hard to believe that it could actually be 'me' who is among the unlucky.

This is echoed across natural disasters. Is this why people don't take a few minutes to come up with a plan for their family in case of an emergency? Is this why people don't really put together that emergency kit that we all know we should have? Is this why we don't have more funding put into disaster preparedness? After my years of paying attention to disasters I know that the answer is 'it's complicated'.

United States 2016 public risk perceptions. Yale Climate Opinion Maps - U.S. 2016.
Right now Americans have overwhelmingly (70%) accepted that climate change is, in fact, a thing that is really happening. Yet only 40% believe that it will 'harm me personally' (Yale Climate Opinion Maps). This is just one example of perceived risk (here is some information on global views).

Recently in the USA the National Volcano Early Warning and Monitoring System Act was introduced - and example of people working to set up a preemptive system to help save lives. I am told that this is not the first time that something like this has been put forward. This would provide a system that would improve volcano monitoring in the USA - something that seriously needs to happen if we are to be prepared for any one of the ~169 geologically active volcanic centers in the United States awakening. The 2005 National Volcano Early Warning System report identified 57 priority volcanoes that are unmonitored. Let's walk through this. Each volcano has its own personality, and each volcano has its own level of background activity - the shaking and burping that a volcano does just because it is a volcano. In order to know if a volcano is waking up (generally important for saving everyone around the volcano), we need to know when the activity (gas emissions, earthquakes, deformation, thermal output, water chemistry...) is changing. How do we know if different or concerning without knowing what it normally does? This gives us much less warning time, or none at all.

The eruption that had very little warning. Having monitoring networks around volcanoes gives us the best chance of a timely warning.This is Calbuco volcano in Chile erupting in April 2015. This very impressive eruption gave very little warning before producing this ash plume that traveled across international borders.

What does warning time give us? Primarily, it saves lives. Real lives. It prevents people from dying in sometimes damn awful ways including burning, asphyxiation, or physical trauma. This list includes volcanic eruptions that have produced fatalities, with numbers up to 29,000, 36,000, 92,000 for single eruptions. Statistics, however, do not get us to act. These numbers are so huge that most of us cannot comprehend them. My local Pittsburgh Steelers stadium (Heinz Field) can hold 68,400 people. All of those people - gone. Imagine if this statistic included those you grew up with, bought bread and milk from, went to school with... Yet this still doesn't get us to act.

So what can we do?

You can save lives by paying attention. On December 26 2004, a ten year old girl - Tilly Smith from England, saved an entire beach of people in Thailand because of a geography lesson about tsunamis. She recognized the signs (frothing water coming in and in, not out) and, understandably, became hysterical (read her story here). She was about to witness the Boxing Day Tsunami first hand. Because of her courage and insistence lives were saved.

Everyone should watch this video. This still gives me waves of chills. We all have the power to save lives.

Teachers and parents - you can produce these heroes. Children are powerful messengers, raise them to believe in themselves. Teach them to be observant of the world around them, encourage curiosity and let them know that they can contribute.

You all have this power. You don't have to wait until you are on the beach with an impending tsunami, you can tell your elected leaders to support the scientists and disaster managers who do that part for you. Unfortunately, this requires funding, and this is where politics comes in.

We become numb when we thing there isn't something we can actually do to help ourselves or others. We do not act if we do not believe our actions will mean or amount to anything. If we scientists rave about how devastating something will be, the 'well we are screwed anyway' attitude can quickly set in. We do not act if we do not feel an emotional connection to something. We feel something when we hear or see stories that we relate to. We forget about other people's disasters as soon as the media does. Why? Partly because every day life has its risks and challenges (feed the kids, don't crash the car, meet this deadline...). These every day challenges are much greater for more vulnerable populations (see factors of vulnerability) and those are the populations are hit harder by disasters - just look back at Hurricane Katrina.

The thing is, we can all be doing more to prevent disaster for ourselves and others. Right now. Depending on where we live we are ALL faced with a mix of hazards from climate change, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, avalanches, landslides, flooding, tsunami, drought, hurricanes, tornadoes, winter storms, tropical storms, fires, thunderstorms, sinkholes, heatwaves... that's not even mentioning the hazards from space!

Remembering the 1985 Nevado Del Ruiz disaster. A small volcanic eruption unleashed lahars (volcanic mudflows) that killed around 23,000 people. Film by Streva.

You can begin to help people by participating in local and national levels, this can be as simple as phone calls. Tell your elected leaders that you care about these issues. Believe that you can make a difference, because you can. Disasters can be made less severe with evacuation plans, land use planning, building codes, education, a personal action plan, policies, emergency management networks, and funding to name a few. Your voice can influence all of these things for your family, town, state, country, or the entire planet. Really! We don't need to wait for another disaster for attention to be paid, and for funding to support crucial preparedness efforts.

History classes teach us about past disasters. We sit there wondering 'why didn't anyone do anything?!' swearing to ourselves that we would have.Your chance is every day. Your chance is now.

Nevado del Ruiz, living with the volcano. Film by Streva.


  1. When I think about the question, "is science political?", besides thinking "everything is political" (because I had a past life as a '70s radical feminist), I move to another question, "is science on the side of humanity?" Because if more people can feel that it is, then I believe we can get more of us incorporating action into our everyday lives as you encourage. As you say, it's essential that we #translate the relevant evidence from science into everyday actions, and into infrastructure agendas. We need to harness the knowledge from neuropsychology, neurolinguistics, social anthropology and consumer science to understand the most effective ways to do this.

    1. Absolutely. Social sciences and other aspects of human behavior are so crucial and deserve more credit that they get. I went to a conference last November 'Cities on Volcanoes' that works to get people from all aspects of volcanology together including social scientists and emergency managers. It was a great experience to see this all in one place!

  2. The answer is mainly politics and people's needs. Scientists could consider how to speak the language of non-scientists. At times, it is money, so we show how preventing disasters saves money At other times, it is about day-to-day struggles and livelihoods, so we show how preventing disasters can help people struggling day-to-day The messages and means of communication differs depending on context and audience. A Spare Time University (chapter 8 at can assist.

    1. We definitely have a long way to go, and we will be more effective working together and listening. Listening to the locals, listening to the emergency managers, listening to the local and national governments, listening to all of those different view points.