Volcano Watch — Symposium at UHH to focus on Big Isle natural hazards

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A symposium will be held this week on Thursday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., at the University of Hawai`i at Hilo, Campus Center Rooms 306 and 307, with scientists, government officials, and the public participating in broad-ranging discussions about volcanic eruptions and earthquakes in Hawai`i.

A symposium will be held this week on Thursday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., at the University of Hawai`i at Hilo, Campus Center Rooms 306 and 307, with scientists, government officials, and the public participating in broad-ranging discussions about volcanic eruptions and earthquakes in Hawai`i. The discussions will focus on the reliability of prediction, the nature of the hazard, and the means of mitigating the risks. The symposium is co-sponsored by the Center for the Study of Active Volcanoes at the University of Hawai`i at Hilo and the U.S. Geological Survey's Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.

Part of the risk of human habitation on this planet is the occurrence of natural hazards associated with forces that originate below and above the Earth's surface. This summer's disaster has been the catastrophic flooding of the Mississippi River. Last year it was hurricanes Andrew and `Iniki. In 1989 it was the Loma Prieta earthquake in California. These natural disasters claim lives, and the cleanup costs amount to billions of dollars.

Hawai`i is no stranger to natural disasters. In the last five years, in addition to `Iniki, losses have been incurred by landslides on O`ahu's steep and highly developed slopes, by a magnitude-6.1 earthquake on the Big Island, and by lava flow inundation of Kalapana Village and the lower parts of Hawai`i Volcanoes National Park. In the last 50 years, there have been major losses due to tsunami in 1946 and 1960, and to earthquakes in 1973, 1975, and 1983. In addition, the city of Hilo was threatened by a Mauna Loa lava flow in 1984.

In the aftermath of a disaster, everyone's attention is focused on the consequences. People commonly ask, "What went wrong?" "Could it have been prevented?" "What can we do to reduce the damage if it happens again?" However, interest in these questions tends to die quickly, and the measures that could be taken to mitigate future disasters become low priority once again, thus insuring a high cost for the next disaster.

The scientists who study earthquakes and volcanic eruptions on the Big Island can provide data about the long-term probability of an earthquake or an eruption occurring, based on the spatial distribution and frequency of such events over the last 200 years for earthquakes and over the past several thousand years for eruptions. In addition, the likely short-term warning time for eruptions can be predicted, based on historical occurrences. For eruptions, hazard information includes lava volumes, rates of lava advance, and areas covered. For earthquakes, hazard information includes affected area and damage estimates, based on prior occurrences of earthquakes of a given magnitude. Earthquakes are inherently more difficult to predict than eruptions, because most eruptions are preceded by increased earthquake activity. However, no such precursor to large earthquakes has been identified, although changes in the number of small earthquakes within areas where large earthquakes have previously occurred shows some promise.

Scientific knowledge alone cannot reduce the impact of disasters. It takes a commitment from the population at risk and the officials who write legislation and create and enforce policies. The intention of the organizers of this symposium is to create a partnership among scientists, government officials, and the public that can work to mitigate the effects of future disasters. Scientists and educators can integrate information about the nature of the hazards posed and forecast events. However, these forecasts do little to reduce future losses unless they are communicated to those government officials responsible for emergency planning. A public well-informed about hazards and risk mitigation can ensure that elected officials are aware of, and act upon, mitigation issues that concern us all. The press is a critical link among scientists, citizens, and government officials in the publication of accurate and timely information.

At the symposium on Thursday, groups of panelists, each guided by a moderator, will sequentially address four topics. Each discussion will be followed by questions from the audience. The first topic is how well scientists can forecast earthquakes and eruptions. The panelists include scientists from the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory and the University of Hawai`i. The second topic concerns the issues for scientists and government officials to resolve when faced with an eruption or earthquake. The panelists will represent various community associations and businesses. The third topic concerns what information government agencies need from scientists to effectively respond to eruptions and earthquakes. Panelists will represent agencies responsible for hazard response and public safety. The final topic concerns what is currently being done, and what should be done, to address long-range mitigation of earthquakes and eruptions. Panelists will represent state and county agencies responsible for land-use planning and policies.

Although no one can prevent or even reduce natural hazards, we can reduce the risk to lives and property through proper planning. On Thursday, when there is no immediate crisis to confront, we will focus on these and related issues. The public is encouraged to attend and participate. For further information, call Darcy Bevens at the Center for the Study of Active Volcanoes, University of Hawai`i at Hilo, 933-3631.