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Reducing risk from lahar hazards: Concepts, case studies, and roles for scientists

November 1, 2014

Lahars are rapid flows of mud-rock slurries that can occur without warning and catastrophically impact areas more than 100 km downstream of source volcanoes. Strategies to mitigate the potential for damage or loss from lahars fall into four basic categories: (1) avoidance of lahar hazards through land-use planning; (2) modification of lahar hazards through engineered protection structures; (3) lahar warning systems to enable evacuations; and (4) effective response to and recovery from lahars when they do occur. Successful application of any of these strategies requires an accurate understanding and assessment of the hazard, an understanding of the applicability and limitations of the strategy, and thorough planning. The human and institutional components leading to successful application can be even more important: engagement of all stakeholders in hazard education and risk-reduction planning; good communication of hazard and risk information among scientists, emergency managers, elected officials, and the at-risk public during crisis and non-crisis periods; sustained response training; and adequate funding for risk-reduction efforts. This paper reviews a number of methods for lahar-hazard risk reduction, examines the limitations and tradeoffs, and provides real-world examples of their application in the U.S. Pacific Northwest and in other volcanic regions of the world. An overriding theme is that lahar-hazard risk reduction cannot be effectively accomplished without the active, impartial involvement of volcano scientists, who are willing to assume educational, interpretive, and advisory roles to work in partnership with elected officials, emergency managers, and vulnerable communities.

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