Volcanoes can have a wide variety of impacts on humans. These range from effects at very localized scales, such as lava flows burying buildings or roads, to intermediate scales when pyroclastic flows, debris avalanches, and ash fallout cause damage over hundreds to thousands of square kilometers, and to the largest scale where major land areas are inundated with ash and global climate is altered for several years. In fact, volcanoes can effectively cause every kind of natural disaster on some scale, including earthquakes, fires, landslides, tsunamis, flooding, and even extreme winds (such as in a pyroclastic surge or flow). Unfortunately, population growth, coupled with the benefits provided by volcanoes (e.g., fertile soils, geothermal energy, beautiful scenery, mineral deposits, and raw building materials) means that humans are increasingly vulnerable to volcanic processes. Risk assessment is an important way that geoscientists can use their understanding of volcanic processes to improve planning and preparedness, as well as to help cope with the aftermath of an eruption, and thereby save lives.
Volcanic risk assessment has three components. The first involves defining the type of volcanic event(s) that is of concern in a given situation. Event definition requires an understanding of the types of processes that have occurred in the past at a volcano or volcanic field, along with an understanding of the population, infrastructure, or facilities that might be affected. The second component focuses on establishing the likelihood that the defined event(s) will occur. For an active or awakening volcano, this might include interpretation of remote sensing, geophysical, and geochemical data within the context of a model for how the volcanic system works. In other cases, such as monogenetic volcanic fields (see Basaltic volcanism), there may be no immediate indicators of future activity, and event likelihood must depend on projecting the geologic record forward in time in terms of eruption frequency and location. In both cases, probabilistic techniques are an important method for incorporating data and model uncertainty and providing a realistic estimate of future activity. The third component of risk assessment is predicting the effects or consequences of an event. Again, this requires knowledge of the population, infrastructure, and facilities that could be affected, as well as the dynamic conditions associated with the volcanic event (predicted, for example, by theoretical and numerical modeling) and the response of people and structures to those conditions.
My work in volcanic risk assessment to date has focused on the impacts of pyroclastic flows on buildings, numerical model predictions of pyroclastic flow conditions, and the probability and consequences of a basaltic volcano erupting through the proposed radioactive waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada (U.S.A.). My ongoing interests in this area include risk to urban areas located in or near volcanic fields, continued refinement of numerical models of eruptive processes and coupling with infrastructure response characteristics, and linking to larger systems models that study the ripple effects of societal and infrastructure disruption from volcanic and other natural disasters.