Memorandum submitted by The Geological
Society of London (SAGE 29)
1. The Geological Society is grateful for
the opportunity to respond to this inquiry. In addressing the
questions raised, we have focused on the Icelandic volcanic ash
cloud case study, while attempting also to draw some wider lessons.
Several of the questions raised, such as those relating to how
advice was sourced and used, are principally for Government, and
for those who have clear sight of its workings. We can, however,
attempt to reflect the perceptions of those in the Earth science
community we represent regarding these issues, and have interpreted
these questions correspondingly broadly.
2. We note that a separate submission has
been made by the British Geophysical Association (BGA) (a Joint
Association of the Geological Society and the Royal Astronomical
Society (RAS)), again focusing on the ash cloud case, and that
the BGA also provided input to the RAS submission on solar storms.
What are the potential hazards and risks and how
were they identified? How prepared was the Government for the
emergency? How did the Government use scientific advice and evidence
to identify, prepare for and react to an emergency?
3. Potential risks of volcanic ash, including
those to aviation, were well known prior to the 2010 eruption
of Eyjafjallajökull. For example, a British Airways flight
narrowly escaped disaster following the 1982 eruption of Mount
Galunggung in Indonesia (see www.geolsoc.org.uk/flight9). In particular,
some Earth scientists report that they have been warning Government
and others of the potential for major disruption due to Icelandic
eruptions for a number of years, but feel that little notice has
been taken of these warnings.
4. The impression of some in the volcanological
research community is that when the emergency arose, initially
the gathering and use of advice was not well coordinated, despite
the willingness to help of a wide range of those with relevant
expertise. However, those who were directly involved in working
with Government, particularly in the British Geological Survey
(BGS) (see below) report that coordination and communication of
geoscientific advice was prompt and effective. Those in the wider
community, who were most likely unaware of much of this activity,
acknowledge that the situation improved, and that overall the
Government took appropriate geological advice and used it effectivelythough
there is little understanding in the community of how key experts
were identified, or of the institutional arrangements employed.
Some of the responsibility for any lack of understanding must
fall to the Earth science community itself.
5. BGS, as a Research Centre of the Natural
Environment Research Council (NERC), will make its own submission
to the inquiry as part of the Research Councils UK response. We
highlight here the role BGS played, in its role advising Government
on natural hazards, and as a major centre for UK volcanology which
was central to the input of the geoscience community in this case.
BGS led geoscientific liaison with Icelandic authorities, and
alongside the National Centre for Atmospheric Science (NCAS) provided
information and advice to the civil contingency secretariat on
decisions relating to aviation. Together with NCAS and the Met
Office, BGS was represented on the Scientific Advisory Group in
Emergencies (SAGE), chaired by the Government's Chief Scientific
Advisor. We welcome the news that NERC is to lead a joint interdisciplinary
research programme with ESRC on resilience and vulnerability to
seismic and volcanic-related natural hazards, as a contribution
to the RCUK "Global Uncertainties" programme.
6. Regarding future risks, it is widely
recognised that other volcanoes on Iceland might cause similar
problems to Eyjafjallajökull, possibly on a considerably
greater scale. Volcanoes in other parts of the world may also
produce ash clouds, and these too could cause disruption. Mapping
of major, in particular, polar air routes to the distribution
of active and recently dormant volcanoes could be instructive,
for example, in assessing potential risk posed by volcanoes on
the west coast or North America (Mount St Helens, Mount Rainier,
etc) and Alaska, especially the chain of Aleutian volcanoes.
7. A further issue is the extent of monitoring.
Volcanoes such as Mount St Helens and, in Europe, Vesuvius, are
surrounded by extensive ground based seismic networks which should
provide early warning of possible eruption. But on a worldwide
scale many volcanoes are not monitored and erupt with no warning.
It may be possible to supplement ground monitoring with remotely
sensed data from satellites. Key factors in determining whether
this would be feasible or useful are the nature of onboard sensors
and their utility, as well as the extent, frequency and sensitivity
of the coverage which could be furnished in this way.
8. Not all volcanic eruptions produce ash
clouds, but among those which do, the chemical composition of
the material ejected and the style of eruption (ie the mechanism
by which it happens) vary. These factors will affect the physical
properties of any ash created, such as the melting point, particle
size and density of the ash; and the size, density, location and
optical properties of the cloud. These properties in turn affect
the possible risks. In continuing to improve our understanding
of past, present and future eruptions and their impacts, factors
to consider therefore include likelihood of volcanic activity
by location, chemical composition of the magma, potential explosiveness,
and interaction with other elements of the Earth system (in the
case of ash clouds, the atmosphere).
What are the obstacles to obtaining reliable,
timely scientific advice and evidence to inform policy decisions
in emergencies? Has the Government sufficient powers and resources
to overcome the obstacles? Was there sufficient and timely scientific
evidence to inform policy decisions?
9. To position the government to access
and use expert advice in all of the more or less foreseeable emergency
situations which might arise is clearly a huge challenge. Suggestions
for addressing this challenge among those we consulted included
setting up an appropriate "rapid response" group, to
be on stand-by ahead of an eventthough clearly a large
number of such groups would be needed to provide even reasonable
coverage of those possible emergencies which have been identified,
let alone those which have not.
10. A more realistic approach might be to
improve the means by which those in Government can rapidly identify
and contact those with relevant expertise (recognising that useful
advice may come from sectors and disciplines which those seeking
it have not thought of). There may be a significant role here
for the learned societies. For example, the Geological Society
is in preliminary discussions with officials at the Government
Office for Science, as well as colleagues at other scientific
societies, to explore the scope for an administratively light
mechanism to help officials looking for rapid expert advice (not
necessarily in emergency situations) to address their questions
to a central point, from where it would be picked up by those
societies who believe there may be relevant expertise among their
membership. Resource constraints, particularly at smaller more
specialist societies, however modest the requirements, are likely
to be the main obstacle to such a scheme, along with lack of uptake
on either side.
11. There is a perception, perhaps undeserved,
among some in the Earth science community that the Government
is poorly set up to receive advice (whether or not it is explicitly
sought), particularly at times of crisis. Some also questioned
how effectively and rapidly such advice is scrutinised and filtered.
Experience from other crises suggests that it can be difficult
to communicate a serious scientific concern, particularly if it
is not founded in the discipline(s) which are assumed primarily
to inform the policy issue in question (eg if an issue of physics
is raised during a veterinary crisis). The reception on the part
of Government to representations and advice about the eruption
of the Soufriere Hills volcano on Montserrat from 1995 onwards
(which forced most of the island's population to flee and destroyed
its capital) clearly did lasting damage to the confidence of the
volcanological community in these advice structures. Perceptions
among research communities that Government is ill equipped or
even unwilling to hear external expert advice, even if they are
misplaced, represent a serious challenge to future effectiveness
in this area, and warrant putting effort into confidence building,
both on the part of Government and the Earth science community
12. In its submission to the Government
Chief Scientific Advisor's consultation on guidelines on scientific
analysis on policy making, the Geological Society recognised some
of the competing demands on Government's use of expert advice,
potentially across multiple disciplines and in the context of
public and stakeholder engagement. We noted the value, but also
the difficulty, of paying attention to the sectors in which expertise
originates (academia, industry, government agencies and regulatory
bodies, NGOs, etc), of embracing plural and diverse viewpoints
(including among scientists who disagree), and of valuing the
dissent and unorthodoxy which are at the heart of scienceand
drive its development. The challenges of such an approach to sourcing
and using advice is all the more challenging in emergencies, but
may be no less important, since moments of crisis can also be
those in which public confidence is most at stake and Government's
use of expertise is likely to come under scrutiny.
13. The scientific community can only provide
excellent advice if it is supported by continuing excellent research.
Regarding volcanic ash clouds, the research priorities suggested
above span the applied and the more basic, and a similar range
of research will underpin many other known risk areas. But it
is also vital to maintain a vibrant culture of high calibre curiosity-driven
research, among other reasons, so that society is as well positioned
as possible to respond to the "unknown unknowns"future
novel risks and emergencies which we have not yet anticipated.
Much of the research being done on volcanic ash would have been
regarded as basic only a few months ago, before the phenomenon
was widely recognised as a threat, but can now reasonably be characterised
as applied (or at least applicable). In the long run, the supply
of excellent science researchers and communicators will depend
not only on research funding, but on high quality science education
at all levels, and on the nurturing of those seeking research
and other science careers.
How effective is the strategic coordination between
Government departments, public bodies, private bodies, sources
of scientific advice and the research base in preparing for and
reacting to emergencies?
14. As noted above, there is some perception
that central coordination of information was weak, particularly
in the early stages of the emergency. A particular concern is
a lack of awareness, even now, among the relatively small UK volcanological
research community, of the work other researchers and groups are
engaged in (or seeking funding for), and this situation is common
to other sub-disciplines, impairing not only the community's ability
to function and communicate effectively amongst themselves, but
also to provide advice to Government. It would be a major challenge
to try comprehensively to identify and record in a useful way
all the research being undertaken across universities and research
institutions, but if an attempt is not made to address this issue,
and in the absence of more strategic coordination of research,
we risk wasting resources by duplicating effort, and missing out
on available knowledge and expertise in addressing policy issues.
The data held by the Research Councils (both as funding bodies
for university research, and as research institutions or contractors
in their own right), taken together with the information gathered
for the REF, could be a useful starting point.
How important is international coordination and
how could it be strengthened?
15. Sharing advice, information and best
practice internationally is clearly to be encouraged, and is essential
in addressing phenomena whose impacts cross national boundaries
(such as the Eyjafjallajökull ash cloud). Research groups
in universities and other institutions routinely engage in such
international collaboration. Further to its involvement in providing
information and advice during the crisis, the BGS is currently
collaborating with the Iceland Institute of Earth Sciences, the
Icelandic Meteorological Office, the UK Met Office and several
UK universities on a major research project in this area. Government
should seek not only to benefit from the research results which
ensue, but also to build on such initiatives to improve communication
and sharing with those responsible for scientific advice in overseas
governments. (We are aware that SAGE is working with Icelandic
colleagues to address volcanic activity and its impacts on the
UK, and to develop scenarios for planning and mitigation in the
case of future potentially larger volcanic eruptions.) It should
actively support collaboration of this kind, enhance the capabilities
of UK institutions to engage in it, and seek to ensure that participation
is not threatened for example by funding constraints.
16. This submission identifies a number
of areas in which we suggest that Government should act to address
real or perceived shortcomings, or to maintain and capitalise
on capabilities. It is important too that scientific communities
examine critically their own strengths and weaknesses, and act
to improve communication within and between research communities,
and between these communities and policy-makers, regarding policy-relevant
science. Learned societies are among those best placed to broker
such discussions, and the Geological Society takes seriously its
responsibilities with respect to the Earth science community.
We are keen to engage closely with relevant policy-makers as we
seek to improve our performance in this area.
The Geological Society
13 September 2010