Consequences of long-term volcanic activity for critical social infrastructure systems

Many countries have potentially active volcanoes and volcanic centres and population increases mean that now people are living closer to volcanic centres, which increases their exposure to volcanic hazards.

In some areas, volcanic activity is not confined to a short period of activity but instead continues to erupt and to threaten populations for many years. Some current examples of long‐duration and ongoing eruptions include the following volcanoes: Sakura‐Jima, Japan (intermittent since 1955), Rabaul, Papua New Guinea (Intermittent since 1994), Merapi, Indonesia (events every few years since the turn of the 20th century), Kilauea, Hawaii (1983 to present), Tungurahua, Ecuador (1999 to present) and Soufriere Hills, Montserrat (1995 to present) (SI, 2011).

Urban centres in these long‐term environments have often relocated away from the slopes of volcanoes as frequent hazards continue to threaten and impact proximal areas. For example Plymouth in Montserrat was evacuated in 1997 and later buried by pyroclastic flows (Kokelaar, 2002). Such regions now face a different type of impact, often from relatively frequent hazards such as ashfall and gases that extend beyond the boundaries of an exclusion zone. In the long‐term it is these hazards that threaten societies most often. The impacts from volcanic ashfall are physically, socially and economically disruptive and we must find ways to manage this risk to urban areas, by exploring the consequences of exposure and mechanisms for reducing the effects.

The developed world vulnerability to volcanic ash was exemplified during the recent eruptions of Eyjafjallajokull (April-May 2010) and Grímsvötn (May 2011) in Iceland, and Puyehue-Cordón Caulle in Chile (June 2011). The Eyjafjallajokull eruption caused the closure of airports across Europe for 6 days in April 2010, with subsequent closures into May 2010. This event also exposed our dependency as a society on infrastructure sectors such as aviation, and revealed some knock-on impacts to other sectors, both locally and across the globe; with imports and exports affected; postal service disruption; health concerns raised in the UK and extensive business interruption costs. A schematic below shows these cascading effects (Sword-Daniels, 2010).

Urban centres have complex infrastructure systems, which have a variety of dependencies on other infrastructure systems as well as staff, management and the wider community. A method for assessing the consequences of volcanic ash exposure for complex systems is required, so that their vulnerabilities and resilience can be understood. By exploring complex systems in a long-term volcanic environment, the process of adaptation over time can be better understood, which will alter the dynamics of the system and ultimately move it towards or away from a resilient state.

Focus of Research

In emergency situations, maintaining to functionality of healthcare services is vital to reduce the impacts on societies and economies, and to restore life to normal after such an event.

This project aims to assess the consequences of long-term volcanic activity for complex infrastructure systems. Particular focus is placed on exploring healthcare systems and services as an example of complex adaptive systems, to understand vulnerabilities, resilience and adaptations through time.

This project aims to take a holistic view of whole system consequences, using a systems thinking approach to understand the interdependency of healthcare systems, lifeline services, other volcanic ash-impacted sectors and the wider community. By understanding the dynamics of healthcare systems and services, critical dependencies can be identified and relationships understood. Adaptations over time will lend insights into effective risk reduction measures and allow longitudinal insights into system evolution and the progress towards or away from a state of resilience. Risk management practice can be improved both by understanding the consequences of ashfall on complex systems and possible risk reduction measures, which will reduce the effects on society and enable more sustainable living in volcanic environments. 

Research Methods

This project uses case studies to explore the impacts of relatively recent volcanic eruptions on healthcare systems and services, and the social consequences of these systems. A pilot study has been undertaken in Montserrat and has revealed some insights into the main causes of system stress, brought on by volcanic ash impacts.

Montserrat will form the main case study, used to undertake an in-depth assessment of whole system vulnerabilitygain an in-depthgain. Other case studies will provide supporting insights and field sites include Pacaya, Guatemala, into the impacts of volcanic ash on critical infrastructure services and may include Guatemala and Tungurahua, Equador.

Research methods are qualitative and exploratory, and include semi-structured interviews and focus groups with infrastructure staff, as well as ethnographic insights into case study context.

Sponsors: EPSRC (UCL EngD USAR), BGSMassey UniversityArup

Epicentre Staff Involved: Victoria Sword-Daniels