Volcanologists ’ efforts on Montserrat praiseworthy

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Scientists involved in evaluating risks to public health run the risk of drawing unfair blame when problems ar- ise (New Scientist 157(2122), 15-16; 1998). A case in point is a news report in Nature (392, 743-44; 1998) that distorts the situation in Montserrat and does grave dis- service to UK and West Indies scientists and British Geological Survey personnel who have performed mer- itorious service under exhaustive and frequently dan- gerous circumstances for the past three years. At a time when scientists are performing vital work under im- mense political and social pressure and require the sup- port of the scientific community, it is particularly unfor- tunate that the news report was largely based on an un- published survey of exasperated islanders who had been forced to live under unpleasant and extremely stressful circumstances for many months. The report makes scientists the scapegoat and pro- vides a misleading impression of the heroic work being done by a large number of professionals to ameliorate the emergency: “Local criticism of the observatory stems from the scientists’ patchy record in predicting eruptions, and the direction of the flows of hot ash and magma – known as pyroclastic flows. The observatory’s staff failed to predict the explosion of magma on 17 Sep- tember 1996, which caused a 40,000-feet high plume of ash, and deposited 600,000 tonnes of ash on the south of the island. Their prediction of a similar eruption in De- cember turned out to be a false alarm. Residents who had been evacuated were sent back to their homes. Six months later, more than 20 people died in and around their homes during a third major eruption in June 1997.”

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  • Barry Voight

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