La Soufrière eruption: Q&A with Dr Jazmin Scarlett
Dr Jazmin Scarlett is a historical and social volcanologist, whose research has focused particularly on the La Soufriere volcano on the island of St Vincent. She is a recipient of a 2021 President’s Award from the Geological Society.
Here, she answers some questions about the current eruption, and the impact it could have on the island’s residents.
What’s the current situation on St Vincent?
As of 9th April 2021, La Soufriere St. Vincent entered an explosive phase after effusive activity that began in late December 2020. The explosive phase is experiencing series of pulses of the ejection of tephra generating ash columns, pyroclastic density currents (old term pyroclastic flows) and now due to rainfall, the remobilisation of volcanic material into lahars (volcanic mudflows).
How much do we know about what residents can expect in the coming days/weeks?
It is uncertain how long these explosions will go on for. However with each explosion there will be ashfall and it will depend on the wind direction on where the ash falls.
What longer term impacts can we expect?
We can expect an impact on the agricultural sector, due to the burying of cultivatable land, damage of crops and agriculture related buildings that are in the higher risk areas. There maybe also livestock that could not be evacuated, so they could either be abandoned or killed. However, this will be more of a shorter term impact, within a few years.
Can you tell us a little about the island of St Vincent and how many people are living within the current ‘red zone’? Alongside the risks, what are some of the advantages of doing so?
The island of St. Vincent is quite small, with a chain of extinct volcanoes running south to the north, with the active volcano of La Soufriere. The mountain range is montane rainforest and home to the endemic St. Vincent Parrot. There are a mixture pure white and black sand beaches. There are approximately 20,000 people who live in the red zone. The main benefit that people living in this area experience is the rich fertile volcanic soil and building material; however there are cultural benefits too, such as a sense of place, aesthetics and geo-cultural heritage.
How does this eruption compare with previous eruptions of La Soufriere?
This eruption is being compared to the 1902 eruption, which has been the deadliest in the recorded volcanic history of La Soufriere, killing approximately 1,300 people. This is due to the amount of tephra being ejected and the energy in which it is doing so.
What are some of the challenges around conversations about volcanic risk with residents?
There have been tremendous efforts in the past 40 or so years to raise awareness about the volcanic risk of La Soufriere. In the past 10 years, there have been two projects: STREVA (https://streva.ac.uk/) and Volcano Ready Project (http://www.gov.vc/index.php/media-center/805-volcano-ready-communities-project-to-launch-in-saint-vincent-and-the-grenadines), that has really driven capacity building.
What impact do you think this eruption will have on residents’ relationship to their environment?
It will have negative and positive impacts. Some will be too scared to return home, if they were from the evacuated areas. Some may lose their livelihoods, especially persons in the agricultural sector. But on the positive note, this may bring the people and the nation, closer together. It may also inspire a Vincentian to become a volcanologist, like how the stories of 1979 and 1902 from my family inspired me to become one!
Can you tell us more about your field, social volcanology?
Social volcanology is the field of researching how people live with active volcanoes, in particular with the surface processes and volcanic hazards associated that can impact society.