The UWI Seismic Research Centre is partnering with the University of Cambridge on a project to measure the efficacy of its crisis communications during the eruption. Feedback from the public and stakeholders will be used to strengthen the Centre’s communication strategy to ensure that important scientific and safety messages are received and understood by those who need them.
Due to the pandemic, the bulk of the Centre’s communications was online which may have excluded vulnerable groups such as the elderly and those with limited internet access. “We are particularly interested in learning more about how our messages were received by those living on the flanks of the volcano who may have had limited access to the internet,” said Stacey Edwards, Education & Outreach Manager at the Centre. “This study will help us to identify gaps as well as build a more robust and inclusive strategy that can be used by the Centre and national disaster management agencies like NEMO.
The study will run through August and comprises an online survey along with in-person surveys, focus groups and stakeholder interviews in St Vincent. Persons can complete the survey here: https://cambridge.eu.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_ehu2e4Gkp33U3fo?Source=Website.
A photographic exhibition exploring past eruptive activity at La Soufrière volcano launches at the National Trust Building in Kingstown, St.Vincent. (T. Anderson, York Museum Collection)
A volcano observatory is not a place for the faint of heart. My introduction to observatory life was an assignment to ‘man the drums’. As a teenaged cadet, I would spend a few nights at *Belmont helping the scientists keep an eye on the instruments (drum recorders) used in monitoring Soufriere. By then, the mountain had been exploding for about a week and the scientists needed fresh eyes to help out…at least for a couple hours. In 1979 those eyes provided some reprieve for those on the frontline, in 2021 those same eyes would again come in handy.
When a volcano blows, you need experienced people; people who can think on their feet. These people are as dynamic as they are hardcore. It calls for a varied team of earth scientists; the kind that are hands-on and practical. It requires people that can remain rooted when all else loses its mooring. You see the thing is, in volcanology, you use techniques that at best can only provide an obscured view of something happening deep beneath the surface of the Earth. Whatever we see is filtered by everything it has to pass through. That journey makes a world of difference. The data we collect is as much the result of the source as it is of the route taken. A good volcano scientist tries to re-trace the steps to the beginning. He (or she) must pay attention to signboards along the way. At times there will be forks in the road; this is where your gut and experience come in. With the right team and some luck, you will find your way and be able to say something about what the volcano is doing and likely to do. It is nearly impossible to get the full picture, so the job of an observatory scientist is rife with uncertainty. It makes sense then that the people who man an observatory are all “characters”. People who must not only put themselves in harm’s way to do their job, but also shoulder the burden of protecting the lives of others. Working conditions are often extremely stressful. This assignment requires a particular kind of mindset but more importantly a steely character. People who can be calm in distress, who can function in the chaos, are the people you want around. Relationships are important, otherwise you may not make it out alive. When this many ‘ologists’ get together there are bound to be sharp edges.
In an observatory one must be ready to respond, to act, to do whatever it takes to give the best scientific advice possible. You are always aware that the advice you offer helps to save lives. Still, to make decisions one must objectively look at data and allow thoughts of the implications to take a back seat.
Observatory life can be challenging, difficult, stressful, but strangely peaceful. You may ask “What mindset is best?” “What kind of people do you require?” Good questions. My sense is that it may have something to do with your path to the observatory.
Author: Richard E.A. Robertson
Richie Robertson is a Vincie geologist working at The UWI-SRC on geo-hazards including risk, raising hazard awareness and building community resilience.
The UWI St. Augustine, Trinidad & Tobago. Thursday, May 6, 2021. — The Government of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines has lowered the volcanic alert level at La Soufrière to ORANGE based on a recommendation from The University of the West Indies Seismic Research Centre (UWI-SRC).
UWI-SRC/MVO Volcano-seismologist and current Scientific Team Lead, Roderick Stewart made the recommendation to the cabinet on Tuesday May 4, during his update on the current activity at the volcano. Mr. Stewart indicated that the recommendation was being made given that there have been no explosions at the volcano since April 22 and the number of volcanic earthquakes recorded has also decreased significantly. At alert level ORANGE the volcano may resume explosions with less than twenty-four hours of notice.
Lahars (mudflows) continue to pose a dangerous threat to the river valleys surrounding the volcano including Wallibou and Rabacca. Mudflows observed over the past several days have contained boulders up to 5m (15 feet) in diameter. Scientists also observed steaming flows, which are likely due to contact with and incorporation of hot volcanic deposits. Lahars can cause damage to property and serious injury to persons in their path. Access to the RED volcanic hazard zone should be limited to government approved essential work only. Conditions remain hazardous and the potential for injury also remains.
The National Emergency Management Organisation (NEMO) and The UWI-SRC continue to be the authoritative sources of information on the eruption of La Soufrière volcano in Saint Vincent.
I don’t know when I first lost track of the time, but my laptop’s “no backups for 78 days” is sometimes my only reference. The last couple of months are now a bit of a blur and I usually need to consult my notes if anyone asks me when the eruption started or how long it has been since the last explosion. I know we did some good science in the days running up to the first explosion but can’t for the life of me remember what it was.
A typical day at the observatory starts like this. Wake up and check the drums. “The drums” is an anachronism from the days when recordings from a seismometer were made with a pen drawing a trace on paper that had been wrapped around a rotating drum. Computers do all the work now, but we haven’t found a better way to display an entire day’s worth of seismic data at once so the drum plots are now virtual. Satisfied that there is nothing of concern on the drums, it’s then time for a shower, another check of the drums, and then make some breakfast. I usually eat my breakfast-in the Ops Room, watching the drums. This requires a short ten foot walk outside, seriously risking a light dusting of ash on the food. I might then have to clean up the mess left by animals going through the trash – if that was Tremor the pig, he or she is bacon. Check the drums again, then start thinking about lunch. Maybe it was a mistake evacuating the only restaurant for miles around.
We have two buildings at the observatory. The accommodation building is well equipped and sleeps up to four, but two is better. The fittings have been updated as needed, so we have a washing machine, an ironing board (unused because the person that requested it has gone) and, most recently, cable TV. We have had to endure power cuts and water problems, but NEMO and BRAGSA have always come through for us. The worst thing about the house for me is trying to sleep. Because of the ash, we had every window and door sealed in a vain attempt to keep it out, making the rooms very hot and stuffy. The other building is the observatory proper, with the Ops Room and two equipment rooms, one of which doubles as a bedroom. The Ops Room is air conditioned and we try to keep it ash free, again in vain. I tried introducing a rule that only the seismologist was allowed to eat in the Ops Room, but that lasted less than a day.
For a long time there were three of us here; the rasta, the bald head and the rock star. We worked shifts to have someone in the Ops Room at all times. If something happened during the night, you had to wake the other two up because we wanted to miss nothing. None of us are really domesticated or even tidy, so the place was a bit of a mess and the fridge had things in it that were older than the volcano. But we never fought and hardly ever grumbled. One of the memories that I will take away from this eruption is the pleasure of working under very trying circumstances with colleagues that I respected and trusted. It makes the job a lot easier. Eventually the domestic situation was saved by the arrival of the Greek, a scientist who trained as a chef and loves to cook and clean. And never grumbles about it.
The eruption itself was spectacular and there are some things about it that still amaze me. The phenomenal rate of dome growth we saw before the first explosion; I still half-expect someone to pop up with evidence that shows it was a dream. The incredible non-stop venting that just went on and on and on. And the textbook-like nature of the seismic activity.
Most of all, I will remember the warmth and appreciation of Vincentians from all walks of life. We have had numerous donations of food and drink to the observatory, from The Prime Minister’s wife’s lasagna to a local farmer’s fresh fruit and homemade smoothies. Workers that come to the observatory to fix things to keep us going always seem to have a kind and encouraging word. People have even stopped us in the street or the supermarket to say thanks. I have never felt that level of appreciation from a community in my life, and it will never leave me. St Vincent will never leave me.
Author: Roderick Stewart
Roderick Stewart is a UWI-SRC volcano-seismologist based at the Montserrat Volcano Observatory (MVO)
The UWI St. Augustine, Trinidad & Tobago. Monday, April 26, 2021. — Experts at The UWI Seismic Research Centre (UWI-SRC) advise that La Soufrière volcano in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines remains dangerous despite pauses in explosive activity.
During a virtual press conference hosted on Wednesday, April 21, Rod Stewart, Volcano-Seismologist from UWI-SRC/Montserrat Volcano Observatory (MVO) emphasized, “…although it is easy to identify the start of eruptions, conclusively saying when eruptions are over often proves more difficult.”
The UWI-SRC and Vincentian authorities continue to monitor developments at the volcano, as they have been since the onset of heightened activity in December 2020, which entered an explosive phase on April 9, 2021. Advice provided by the UWI–SRC enabled the successful evacuation of 13,000 residents from the designated ‘RED ZONE’ 24 hours prior to the first explosion of the volcano. Thirty-two discrete explosions have been observed since the onset of explosive activity. To date, there has been no loss of life. Ash from these explosions has been the primary hazard. Buildings and infrastructure have suffered damage in Saint Vincent and nearby Barbados was also severely impacted for several days. Explosive events have become less frequent over time, with the period between explosions increasing as the eruption progresses.
Professor Richard Robertson, UWI-SRC, Scientific Team Lead estimates that the explosivity seen during this current eruption, is greater than in 1979, and more comparable to the 1902 eruption.
The UWI-SRC Field Scientists based at the Belmont Observatory in Saint Vincent are part of larger team of seismic and engineering technicians, ground deformation specialists and communication experts based at the MVO and in St. Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago. Several international agencies and academic colleagues have also made valuable contributions to the current understanding of the eruption. The UWI-SRC remains ready to serve the region despite a perennial challenge to secure resources.
Dr. Erouscilla Joseph, Director of the UWI-SRC, invited donor agencies willing to partner with the UWI-SRC to “come on-board.” She noted, “reducing the regions vulnerability to natural hazards will require many hands. Our University of the West Indies continues to demonstrate the value of regional integration and its capacity to supply leaders to meet any circumstance.”
The UWI-SRC reaffirms its commitment to Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, which will no doubt require substantial support to recover from this act of nature.
Notes to the Editor
For updates on activity at La Soufrière Volcano in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, follow The University of the West Indies Seismic Research Centre (UWI-SRC) on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/uwiseismic and on Twitter: http://twitter.com/uwiseismic
About The UWI Seismic Research Centre (UWI-SRC)
The Seismic Research Centre was set up in 1953 and became part of The UWI in 1962. From its headquarters in Trinidad, it operates a volcano and earthquake monitoring network throughout the English-speaking Eastern Caribbean islands extending from St. Kitts & Nevis to Trinidad & Tobago. The UWI-SRC is responsible for monitoring earthquake and volcanic activity in these islands. The region in which these countries are located is seismically active and historically has been the site of earthquakes of magnitude greater than 8.0. There are at least 19 live volcanoes in the region, which have been the sites of numerous eruptions, most recently in Montserrat (1995-present), Dominica (1997, phreatic) and St. Vincent & the Grenadines (2020-present). The UWI-SRC currently manages the Montserrat Volcano Observatory (MVO), which is responsible for monitoring the on-going eruption of the Soufriere Hills Volcano.
About The UWI
The UWI has been and continues to be a pivotal force in every aspect of Caribbean development; residing at the centre of all efforts to improve the well-being of people across the region.
From a university college of London in Jamaica with 33 medical students in 1948, The UWI is today an internationally respected, global university with near 50,000 students and five campuses: Mona in Jamaica, St. Augustine in Trinidad and Tobago, Cave Hill in Barbados, Five Islands in Antigua and Barbuda and its Open Campus, and 10 global centres in partnership with universities in North America, Latin America, Asia, Africa and Europe.
The UWI offers over 800 certificate, diploma, undergraduate and postgraduate degree options in Culture, Creative and Performing Arts, Food and Agriculture, Engineering, Humanities and Education, Law, Medical Sciences, Science and Technology, Social Sciences, and Sport. As the Caribbean’s leading university, it possesses the largest pool of Caribbean intellect and expertise committed to confronting the critical issues of our region and wider world.
Ranked among the top universities in the world, by the most reputable ranking agency, Times Higher Education, The UWI is the only Caribbean-based university to make the prestigious lists. In 2020, it earned ‘Triple 1st’ rankings—topping the Caribbean; and in the top in the tables for Latin America and the Caribbean, and global Golden Age universities (between 50 and 80 years old). The UWI is also featured among the top universities on THE’s Impact Rankings for its response to the world’s biggest concerns, outlined in the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including Good Health and Wellbeing; Gender Equality and Climate Action.
For more, visit www.uwi.edu.
(Please note that the proper name of the university is The University of the West Indies, inclusive of the “The”, hence The UWI.)
A baldhead, a Rasta and a rock star walk into a bar… sounds like the set up to a pretty good joke but in reality, these three formed the frontline of a formidable team when La Soufriere decided to blow its top. A teenager the last time La Soufriere erupted; the baldhead would become the face of this latest episode. The rasta, a native Montserratian displaced by another ‘Soufriere’ as a teenager himself, studies volcanic gases. The rock star, a keen Scot with an eye for earthquakes, would ultimately sound the warning that took thousands out of harm’s way. Geologist, Prof. Richard Robertson, gas specialist Dr. Thomas Christopher and volcano-seismologist Roderick Stewart are all part of the larger scientific team keeping an eye on La Soufriere in St. Vincent.
The UWI Seismic Research Centre (UWI-SRC) like many institutions in the region, predates the formation of the independent nations it now serves. In response to a series of volcanic crises in the 1930’s, The Volcanological Research Department was established in 1953 to provide a base for scientific response to eruptions in the British West Indies. Today the UWI-SRC monitors earthquakes and volcanoes in 9 English-speaking Eastern Caribbean territories. Our responsibilities split the team between the Montserrat Volcano Observatory and St. Augustine, Trinidad. Our scientists and technicians are a mix of homegrown talent and international flavour. Trinis, Vincies, Montserratians, and the occasional Jamaican all work alongside those with Kenyan, British, Greek, Chilean, Aussie and French passports.
We are a mixed bag of tricks or maybe a ‘pelau’ might be more appropriate (the author is hungry). Geologists, seismologists, geo-physicists, engineers, ICT professionals, administrators, technicians and science communicators all pitch in to make sense of nature at its more interesting turns. No man is an island, so it makes sense that our Director, Dr. Joseph, is a woman adept at rallying the troops. The days are often long; days when fear must take a back seat to duty, but these are days that you do not get through alone. We may not see them often, but any chance to link up with our Disaster Management friends ‘up the islands’ is always something to look forward to. So, whether it’s posting to the ‘gram’ or collecting rock samples, hiking to the Valley of Desolation (Dominica) or microzonation in Port of Spain (Trinidad), looking down a microscope or Tsunami week in Bim (Barbados)…. it takes a bloody good team!
Author: Omari Graham
Omari Graham is a PhD Volcanology student and Education & Outreach contributor at the UWI Seismic Research Centre. He combines his training in Physics with a love of communication to make science more accessible. Eight years of outreach experience throughout the Eastern Caribbean and natural comedic timing shine through in his workshops and training sessions
The UWI St. Augustine, Trinidad & Tobago. Friday, April 16, 2021. — Field Scientists at The UWI Seismic Research Centre (UWI-SRC) / Montserrat Volcano Observatory based in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines now have the benefit of an LTE modem courtesy Digicel.
Last weekend, the scientists who are currently monitoring the eruption of the La Soufrière volcano received the equipment from Digicel representatives in Saint Vincent.
The modem was provided for use at the Belmont Observatory in Saint Vincent which is the established forward base for scientific observation during the ongoing crisis. LTE modems use cellular technology which has become increasingly robust during natural hazard impacts. This equipment will provide an additional layer of redundancy for communications at the Observatory, ensuring internet connectivity is maintained if the primary wired network is compromised in any way.
Expressing gratitude on behalf of UWI-SRC, Education and Outreach Manager, Ms Stacey Edwards noted, “Communication is very important in these hazardous conditions and backup systems are always necessary, especially when so much is at stake. The UWI Seismic Research Centre Team is grateful to the Digicel Group for their generous contribution and support to the people of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines”.