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  • Carina Fearnley

Assigning a volcano alert level: negotiating uncertainty, risk, and complexity

Updated: May 17

This is one of a series of blogs providing a brief overview of some of the key papers I have written in relation to early warning systems and disaster risk reduction measures:


Fearnley, C. J. (2013). Assigning a volcano alert level: negotiating uncertainty, risk, and complexity in decision-making processes. Environment and Planning a, 45(8), 1891-1911 (doi:10.1068/a4542).

This article was short listed for the Lloyds Science of Risk prize in 2013, and speaks to the work I do on volcano alert level systems and early warning systems, alongside the challenge of understanding and communicating uncertainty and risk. The article demonstrates that by using one standardised model for five varying regions of the United States, each with different types of volcanic activity, there are complications in making the standardised model effective; one size does not fit all. From this it could be implied that governments, amongst others, needs to evaluate the value of using standardised models to establish their risk exposure, especially given the complexity of each natural hazard. In addition, this research shows that the local context and contingency in which the event occurs, is of greater importance than just scientific knowledge when trying to understand the risk a hazard poses. This paper is agenda setting in that it is challenging conventional ways of thinking about hazards and the importance of science and how it is applied, how it is understood, and how people work together to solve the problem of managing risk in practice. By using truly innovative interdisciplinary research this study provides an investigation of the problem of managing volcanic risk in a number of multiple sites, from a range of different perspectives. If we are to learn from past disasters, lessons learnt need to collated from many different institutions, nations, and perspectives. Consequently, there is a very real need for more data of an interdisciplinary nature to shape our understanding of how to develop a more robust risk communication and models.


Below is a key figure outlining the various stakeholders and the types of communication and tools adopted during a crisis to support the alert level system.



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