Volcanologists lose their lives in pursuit of knowledge

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A village destroyed by pyroclastic density currents in the 2010 eruption of Merapi, Indonesia. Over 350 people lost their lives, but successful evacuations saved many thousands.
Susanna Jenkins

Scientists are among the groups of people most likely to be killed in a volcanic eruption, new research has shown.

A team led by Sarah Brown of the School of Earth Sciences at the UK’s University of Bristol tracked down and compiled some 635 documents spanning the years 1500 CE to 2017, which collectively catalogued 278,368 volcano-linked fatalities. The death records, drawn from academic papers and press reports, included deaths caused by lava, projectiles flung from erupting volcanoes, pyroclastic flows, mudslides and ash clouds.

Brown’s team also combed the reports for information relating to how far away from the volcano each fatality occurred, and, where available, the occupation of the person concerned. Previously existing records contained location data for only 5% of recorded deaths; the latest work, published in Journal of Applied Volcanology, ups that to 72%.

The team found that almost half of all eruption-related deaths happened within 10km of a volcano, but at least one was recorded 170km away. 

Volcano ballistics – rocks flung into the air – were the most common cause of death within five kilometres of a summit, with pyroclastic flows accounting for most of those occurring between five and 15 kilometres away. Ash clouds were responsible for the majority of deaths further away.

Most victims across the centuries, not surprisingly, were people who lived on or near volcanoes. Specific types of non-residents, however, stood out for being at greatest risk, namely tourists, emergency service personnel, journalists and scientists.
A total of 561 tourists were killed, mostly within a five kilometre radius, and predominantly by flying rocks. These occurred mainly as a result of very sudden eruptions, affecting visitors who thought the volcano was inactive.{%recommended 5821%}

The next most common group of fatalities were scientists – mainly volcanologists who were standing within one kilometre of a crater, doing research at the time. Brown’s group found 67 such death records, compared to 57 for first responders and 30 for media.

Brown hopes the data will lead to improved management strategies around volcanoes, which could save lives.

“While volcanologists and emergency response personnel might have valid reasons for their approach into hazardous zones, the benefits and risks must be carefully weighed,” she says.

“The media and tourists should observe exclusion zones and follow direction from the authorities and volcano observatories.”

“Tourist fatalities could be reduced with appropriate access restrictions, warnings and education.” 

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