Volcano Watch — What's scientists' role in planning for volcanoes, quakes?

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The Center for the Study of Active Volcanoes at the University of Hawaii in Hilo and the U.S. Geological Survey's Hawaiian Volcano Observatory sponsored a public symposium on the prediction and mitigation of volcanic eruptions and earthquakes about a month ago. One of the topics mentioned at the symposium was the role of scientists and of other public officials.

The Center for the Study of Active Volcanoes at the University of Hawaii in Hilo and the U.S. Geological Survey's Hawaiian Volcano Observatory sponsored a public symposium on the prediction and mitigation of volcanic eruptions and earthquakes about a month ago. One of the topics mentioned at the symposium was the role of scientists and of other public officials.

The discussion focused on the recent hearings at the Hawaii County Council about adoption of the 1991 Unified Building Code (UBC). It was argued that the Council needed the input of scientists in order to evaluate the merits of adopting the UBC and that, because none of the scientists testified at the hearings, they were not responsible to the public. The discussion reflects a widely held but, in my view, incorrect, perception of the role of scientists' in society.

In the issue at hand - that of adoption of the Unified Building Code - the scientists' role is to establish what the seismic hazard is in Hawaii. Four earthquake hazard zones have been defined, with hazard zone 4 reflecting the most severe earthquake hazard and hazard zone 0 with the least severe hazard. The subdividing of the Hawaiian Islands into different zones was done in 1970, based on the best data available at that time. It resulted in classifying Hawaii in earthquake hazard zone 3, Maui in earthquake zone 2, Oahu in earthquake hazard zone 1, and Kauai in earthquake hazard zone 0.

Since then, several modifications have been made; hence, zonation in 1988 was changed so that Hawaii is still in earthquake zone 3, Maui in earthquake zone 2B, Oahu in earthquake zone 2A, and Kauai in earthquake zone 1. Dr. Carl Johnson of the University of Hawaii at Hilo presented data at the symposium, indicating that Hawaii County has a larger seismic hazard than was previously recognized and that, therefore, the appropriate earthquake hazard zone is zone 4.

The idea that new data can cause a reevaluation of the assigned earthquake zonation does not mean that the scientists were withholding information or were indifferent to the concerns of the public or to public officials. It simply means that observations and data available presently, but not known or recognized when the previous evaluation was made, have changed our interpretation of the seismic hazard on Hawaii. These ideas will now be discussed and argued amongst the scientists until a consensus is reached that the seismic risk is indeed higher than thought. At that point, the International Conference of Building Officials, on the recommendation of the Hawaii Structural Engineers Association, will consider upgrading Hawaii to zone 4. The County Council can also simply enact an ordinance to the effect that the County will be considered to be in earthquake zone 4. This was done by the Oahu Board of Supervisors in 1956. The scientists' formal responsibility ends once they have reached a consensus on the level of hazard and have communicated that consensus to the public and to public officials. To go beyond that would be overstepping their bounds. The fact that the scientists sponsor these annual hazard symposia reflects our desire and sense of responsibility in informing the public about natural hazards.

Another example of our desire to convey information to the public involves lava flow hazards. U.S. Geological Survey scientists have synthesized data on lava coverage on the island and created a lava flow hazard map. This map establishes the state of current knowledge on the hazard posed to different areas by lava flows. Once the map is available to policy makers, scientists would be trespassing on the role of other professionals if they went beyond updating the lava flow hazard map if, and when, new and pertinent data become available. Their credibility as scientists would be compromised if the information they presented was perceived to be biased. It is for a very good reason that the U.S. Geological Survey has strict guidelines restricting our active role in partisan issues.

The next stage, after scientists reach a consensus on the hazards posed by lava flows and communicate that information to the public and to policy-makers, is for policy-makers to define administrative boundaries that can then be used for planning purposes by the county, by home purchasers, by mortgages lenders, or by insurance companies. By administrative boundaries I mean workable boundaries that may not exactly follow the geological boundaries, because geological boundaries are gradational. For example, slightly shifting a boundary to include an entire subdivision may make the administrative map more workable.

The Hazards Symposia sponsored by the Center for the Study of Active Volcanoes and the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory offer the public a chance to question scientists about natural hazards and policymakers about the application of scientific knowledge to issues that affect our everyday lives. For those of you who missed this year's symposium but wish you had come, Jones Space Link will give you another opportunity to see each of the four panel presentations and the discussion that followed. Mark your calendar for 7:30 p.m. on October 10, 11, 13, and 16 if you are interested.