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Public Lecture: The stories we tell about volcanoes, and why it matters when they erupt

07 November 2022
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The stories we tell about volcanoes, and why it matters when they erupt

Volcanic eruptions are often adventures into the unexpected. For the 800 million or so people who live within 100km of an active volcanic centre this can mean protracted periods of uncertainty, the potential destruction of infrastructure and the loss of lives. In the modern era, disruption is inevitable but disasters are not. When disasters occur they are often the outcome of insufficient preparedness or awareness or even heed of warnings.

This, however, is easier said than done. Many of the warning ‘messages’ from volcanoes lurk in the subsurface and they are capable of threatening eruption without delivering.  When they do erupt, volcanoes are capable of a dizzying array of eruptive phenomena that challenge even the best laid plans. So, how do we deal with that? This talk explores the role that narratives  - or the stories that we tell of the causes and consequences of volcanic disasters– play in how scientists, decision-makers and communities make sense of these uncertain situations, and even how they influence actions.  We’ve been describing eruptions for centuries, so how do common or well known storylines play into expectations for ‘what next’ during an eruption? Is it the same everywhere? 

Jenni will use some well known (and less well known!)  examples to demonstrate common expectations about volcanic behaviour – and their plotlines. We will explore why it gets dangerous when volcanoes defy these expectations and the explanations for this defiance.  Finally the lecture will conclude with ways we could work together to ‘change the story’. 


Professor Jenni Barclay is a Professor of Volcanology in the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia where she has been teaching and doing research since 1999. Not long after finishing her PhD (University of Bristol, 1995) she got involved in the scientific response to the eruption of the Soufriere Hills Volcano on Montserrat. This changed her perspective on volcanic eruptions and their impacts, and her research has focussed on ways to reduce volcanic risk ever since.

Since then she has worked on many other volcanoes and enjoys collaborations at UEA and worldwide with volcanologists, sedimentologists, atmospheric scientists, geophysicists, social scientists and colleagues from the humanities on a  variety of different problems relating to volcanic phenomena and their social and environmental impacts. Most importantly working with the communities who experience the eruptions themselves has continued to provide inspiration and insights into volcanic eruptions, some of which she will share in this lecture.


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