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The neglected threat of volcanoes

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The spectacular volcano eruptions of Fuego, Guatemala, and Kilauea, Hawaii, bring the dangers of volcanoes to the forefront. Do we take them too lightly?

There are about 1500 active volcanoes in the world. More than 400 million people live within 100 km of the 220 considered the most dangerous. But why choose to settle in these risk areas?

Volcanic eruptions of the last 50 years

This is the result of a cost-benefit analysis, believes Alanna Simpson, disaster risk management specialist at the World Bank.

“Volcanic soils are among the most fertile on the planet,” she says. Thanks to their richness in minerals, one can sometimes make up to three harvests a year, whereas elsewhere one will only make one.

And if a volcano has not erupted for decades, its proximity seems less threatening.

“We are talking about an acceptable risk, that is to say that people agree to live in risk areas because they derive daily benefits that are much more important than the overall risk,” thinks Julie Morin, Laboratory magma and volcanoes Clermont Auvergne University in Clermont-Ferrand, France.

Know your volcano

However, accepting this risk does not mean that you should not try to limit it. And for that, we must understand the volcano we rub shoulders.

First, by studying her “eruptive history”, then by constantly monitoring and informing the population, says Elizabeth Rovere, president of the NGO Gevas Red Argentina (Study Group Volcanoes, Environment and of society), in Buenos Aires.

“The danger maps will be different for each volcano,” she says.

For example, in Hawaii, lava flows are the main hazard. Their potential direction must therefore be clearly indicated on the maps.

In the case of the Fuego volcano in Guatemala , it is the displacement of pyroclastic flows, lava flows, ash falls and lahars that should have been monitored.

“There must be a simple map for the community and a technical map for scientists,” says Rovere.

Then, “there is an absolute imperative, which is to make good planning plans by avoiding to implement too much human activities in areas threatened by volcanic hazards,” believes Julie Morin.

But this recommendation does not really seem to have been followed in recent decades. Since 1975, urbanization near volcanoes has increased by 139%, according to a study by the European Commission.

Some 5.5% of the world’s inhabitants live near a volcano. For these populations, we must therefore prepare for any eventuality.

That means knowing first-hand that you live in a dangerous area – which people sometimes do not know – and have access to maps of evacuation routes, believes Elizabeth Rovere.

A very effective system used in Mexico, she says, is to install light signals in public places to inform people of the imminence of an eruption. Their color changes from green to yellow and then red depending on the level of alert.

But these alerts only work if people know how to react.

Japan, a country highly exposed to volcanic hazards, is an example to follow, says Alanna Simpson. “They have a world-class system to monitor all their volcanoes,” she says. In cities at risk, schoolchildren frequently do simulations and practice using a gas mask.

Chile, Colombia and Ecuador are also doing good work on strategic planning, believes Elizabeth Rovere.

It cites in particular the evacuation of Chaitén, at the foot of the volcano of the same name, in Chile, in 2008. The 4000 inhabitants of this coastal village were evacuated in 24 hours, after the eruption of the volcano, which had been inactive for a thousand years. There were no direct casualties when a lahar destroyed the village a little later.

An unsuspected danger

However, many volcanoes around the world are not adequately monitored . This is especially the case in developing countries, says Alanna Simpson.

“For example, in Papua New Guinea,” she says, “there are about 20 active volcanoes, but only one is under constant surveillance.”

After a disaster, the authorities react by investing in research and prevention. But years go by and we forget, says Simpson.

“A good analogy is that of tsunamis,” she says. “After the 2004 tragedy [in which 280,000 people died], there has been massive investment in tsunami research and prevention, but that has faded over time. It’s human nature.

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