It is a common misconception that the volcanic warning levels used worldwide are forecasts. But this is not the case – not even in New Zealand. “It’s just a measure of what’s happening to a volcano,” explains Tom Wilson, a volcanic risk expert at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch. Predicting an eruption “is one of the hardest things about a volcanic system” – especially in the case of water vapor-induced eruptions, such as the one on White Island, says volcanologist Roberto Sulpizio of the University of Bari.
Wilson stresses that New Zealand’s Volcanic Warning Level System cannot indicate future disasters. He adds that it is currently unclear who will be responsible for assessing such threats when people visit the island. “Ultimately, this should be verified in court.”
Is there a warning of an outbreak?
In the weeks leading up to the December 2019 eruption, warning reports listed seismic activity, mud and gas emissions, and water level changes in the crater lake. Thus, the charges also expressly indicate that the hazard was not classified and reported. NEMA, New Zealand’s state civil protection agency, is accused of not adequately informing the public about the risks. There are allegations against the tour operators and another accused that they did not allow an assessment of the risk.
According to volcanologist Wilson, such commitments are hardly feasible for tour operators. “Assessing solid volcanic hazards is very difficult,” he says. “You’re asking for very demanding appraisals from relatively small companies.” But only very few people around the world qualify for it.
The condemnation of GNS Science could lead other scientific institutions that provide information about natural hazards such as earthquakes, floods and wildfires into a dilemma. What information can they still provide without being held accountable for it — and how should they communicate that, especially if their data decides how to handle risk? One consequence of this may be that they are no longer showing them to the public for fear of criminal prosecution, attorney Connell suspects. “Everyone is waiting to see what happens next,” Wilson says.
“Assessing solid volcanic hazards is very difficult”(Tom Wilson, a volcanic risk expert at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch)
The exceptional situation reminds us of another: 309 people were killed in the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake in central Italy. After that, six scientists and one government official were hired Initially convicted of involuntary manslaughter. The accused scientists Resume and get it right. The case sparked intense debate among geologists about how best to inform the public about natural hazards. “The issue has dominated discussions at some Seismological Society meetings,” says Charlotte Rowe, a seismologist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.
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