Illustration by James Steinberg
Predicting the next big disaster Standing next to a house that had been buried up to its second floor in debris, Dr. Elaine Spiller got a firsthand look at how years of volcanic eruptions forever changed life on the Caribbean island of Montserrat. The capital city of Plymouth and a nearby airport are buried. Significant portions of the island remain unsafe for evacuated residents. But as the destruction piled up, so did the data. Now, Spiller, an assistant professor of mathematics, statistics and computer science, is part of a team that is using measurements from the island’s observatory to build a computer model capable of projecting potential damage for future eruptions. “The goal is to have ‘mañana maps’ — which basically means, something comes up, we can just produce a map based on the information we have,” Spiller says. That might not have been possible before Montserrat’s Soufrière Hills volcano came to life in 1995, beginning a series of eruptions that lasted through 2010. Gathering a steady stream of data on the eruptions was a rare opportunity for researchers in a field where major events are unpredictable and sporadic. By feeding data into a physics-based computer model, Spiller and the team hope to map at-risk areas for other volcanoes that threaten populated areas. Their research represents a philosophical shift in disaster projections, which often have focused on the most likely scenarios instead of the most dangerous ones. Spiller points to the Fukushima nuclear reactor disaster in Japan as an example. “They had done these sorts of computer model simulations of tsunamis, but they never did it at a scenario that was big enough,” she says. “So they effectively missed it.” Instead, Spiller believes that projecting the worst-case scenario should come first. With volcanoes, that scenario is a “pyroclastic flow” of superheated, fast-moving debris that can carry boulders the size of a garage and destroy anything in its way. “You can’t outrun it, basically,” she says. “If you’re in its path, you’re in its path.” On Montserrat, assessing the risks associated with future eruptions is critical for evacuated residents who want to move back to their homes. Damage projections also could impact the island’s financial future. Deposits left behind by the volcano contain valuable minerals that could boost the island’s economy if they can be mined safely. “Then, the question is, is it safe to be working there? If you have expensive equipment, where should you put it? Because you’re not going to be able to move it quickly if something happens,” Spiller says. During her visit to Montserrat in 2011, Spiller heard stories about how the island inspired Jimmy Buffett’s song “Volcano” — where the tropical rocker sings about not knowing where to go when the volcano blows. With Spiller’s help, those who live in the shadow of a volcano may have a better idea of where to seek safety. — CJ Marquette University
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