What would happen if a volcano were to erupt tomorrow in New Mexico? How prepared as we as a society for an event like this to occur? When volcanic unrest occurs, both academic and government agencies need to have advanced fundamental understanding of the volcanic system with coordination before, during and after the event. This necessity has prompted the development of a response plan.
This is where the Community Network for Volcanic Eruption Response (CONVERSE) created scenario exercises centered around a hypothetical volcanic crisis in Arizona’s San Francisco Volcanic Field (SFVF) in the United States. The paper, “Lessons learned from the 2022 CONVERSE Monogenetic Volcanism Response Scenario Exercise'' was recently published in Volcanica journal. The University of New Mexico’s Yolanda C. Lin, lead author, and Tobias Fischer, co-author, helped to publish this research.
This project supported building connections amongst volcano scientists, both within academia and with governmental patterns such as the United States Geological Survey (USGS). These studies are critical for effective scientific response in case of an actual event of volcanic unrest. The effectiveness and impacts of these scenario exercises have not been well-studied. The exercise operated virtually from February 4 to March 4, 2022. The San Francisco Volcanic Field (in Arizona) was chosen in part because it offered a “different” type of response, as a field rather than a classic “cone” shape, and because it covers a variety of controlling bodies (US Gov, tribal lands, private entities, etc).
“This research contributes to understanding how these types of scenario exercises develop a shared culture and sense of community within current and future volcano scientists,” stated Yolanda C. Lin, Assistant Professor, Department of Geography and Environmental Studies.
That community Lin spoke of expanded quite literally due to the use of online platforms to execute scenario exercises, which can be more inclusive (since no travel is required, and funding is limited), and can operate over a longer period of time since no actual field work is being conducted.
The Community Network for Volcanic Eruption Response (CONVERSE) is a geohazard center that represents all various disciplines in volcano science in order to make the best decisions. Tobias Fischer, UNM EPS Professor and lead Principal Investigator of CONVERSE, was awarded a half-a million National Science Foundation grant to establish CONVERSE in 2022. An important aspect of CONVERSE is the partnership with the US Geological Survey. The main goal of CONVERSE is to maximize the science return from volcanic eruptions.
CONVERSE realized early on that practice was essential in order to understand the proper procedures to take, instead of waiting to study an eruption. To be efficient these practice scenarios were vital in order to coordinate and collaborate on the findings.
The first scenario that the team examined was Mount Hood (Mt. Hood) which is a volcano in the Cascades. It is currently not very active but it does pose a real life threat to Portland and other major population centers. Out of this scenario came the idea of a scientific advisory committee that collects information and desires of people to work on the eruption and organizes the collaboration between scientists to achieve their goals.
“What we really want to do with CONVERSE is to open up the possibility for scientists that are perhaps not very well connected and who are maybe early career scientists who are just starting out. With the scientific advisory Committee, we began implementing the process of allowing people to write a one-page proposal and send it to a committee of peers,” stated Fischer.
With this scenario that CONVERSE orchestrated they decided to study volcanoes located in the southwest due to less activity, lack of monitoring, and no seismicity or gas emissions that would make one worried it might erupt. However, as Fischer points out there is a real potential for eruptions because those volcanoes erupted only a few thousand years ago, which is nothing in the geologic time frame. With this in mind, the team wanted to do something that had the potential of wide participation in an eruption, and that is in a location that is not directly monitored by an observatory.
The scenario itself was developed by members of the organizing team, and the research was conducted by participant observation with a pre- and post- workshop survey, led by Lin and co-author and UNM student Ria Mukerji. The scenario exercise was a highly collaborative project that brought together expertise across a wide range of disciplines. “As someone who focuses more on the use of scenarios in disaster preparedness, and who is not a volcanologist, this was a really exciting project for me to learn more from my colleagues in volcano science,” stated Lin.
The experts came together and produced an artificial data set and an artificial timeline to simulate how this volcanic field might become active. This dataset included earthquakes that might be happening, deformation that might occur at a certain time, and carbon dioxide emissions that could occur during the ramp up of the eruption. The team essentially simulated this and disseminated that information to the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory.
The team did this with several different disciplinary data sets and allowed everyone to see that data and provide input. This data set allowed for the researchers to make claims such as volcanoes showing signs of deformation, signs of CO2 emissions and increased seismicity. Based on the information gathered the team was able to predict which direction a lava flow will go.
“It was done in that way of virtually reproducing a scenario that could be realistic and allowing people to react to the information that could potentially be collected. Every week we had Zoom calls where USGS gave some updates, where the different disciplinary groups would give updates on what they think is happening, what their data shows,” said Fischer.
The exercise helped consolidate resources related to volcanic field activity, and also produced open ended questions that spurred new collaboration and discussion, both through the online discussion calls that were part of the exercise, and through proposals submitted by collaborative teams.
“With regards to understanding the role of virtual scenario exercises, we found that these experiences can be impactful and influential, and how the scenarios are conducted - including the types of interactions, and moderation of comments from all participants - is an important aspect of cultivating a culture of inclusivity in these exercises, and by extension, in volcano science” said Lin.
The 2022 CONVERSE exercise demonstrated how a hypothetical scenario can help broaden participation within a volcano science community.
The CONVERSE group is continuing with the scenarios and using them as an educational outreach process. Over the past summer they held a workshop where M.S. students, Ph.D. students, and postdocs built another virtual eruption scenario in a more sophisticated way in order to build a realistic and internally consistent data set composed of deformation data, gas data, earthquake data. The students also modeled the effects of the eruption, such as ash column heights, direction and size of mud-flows and other hazards. Once the model was made, and a model of what an eruption at the volcano would look like the students will be able to utilize this data set in future simulations to simulate the eruption scenario.
“We're increasing the complexity making it more and more realistic so that hopefully in the end we can actually make volcano models that are close enough to what might actually really be happening so that it can inform us directly on how volcanoes work,” explained Fischer.
“As part of CONVERSE, a catalyst center (NSF Award #223911), we have been able to continue our research focused on both the creation of and exercising of volcano eruption scenarios. We are planning to apply for additional funding that would continue to support this work, and continue to provide this training resource and community-building exercise for the volcano science community in the U.S.” stated Lin.
In conclusion the researchers found seven key lessons from this scenario which are outlined in sections 6.1-6.7 in the published paper, however one common underlying thread that stood out between all of the seven lessons learned was focused on how the scenario exercise can better support inclusion in volcano science and eruption response.
As Lin explains, “Volcanos have played a major role in shaping the landscapes of New Mexico and more generally in the Southwest, both physically and culturally. Though eruptions are relatively rare in the Southwest, there have been numerous eruptions in the past 10,000 years and the region is actively monitored for potential signs of volcanic unrest. Plus, volcanoes are just very cool!”