Since April the La Soufrière volcano, located in the north of the largest island of the country of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines in the Caribbean, has erupted multiple times. Strong explosions generated ash plumes, which are not only impacting the entire island of Saint Vincent, but also transporting massive amounts of ash to the neighboring island country of Barbados in the Lesser Antilles of the West Indies.
As a result of the volcanic activity, about 22,240 people were displaced, 4,460 now living in shelters. Mudflows (lahars) and fast-moving flows of hot gases and debris (pyroclastic flows) as well as the volcanic ash have damaged critical infrastructure, and made roads unusable that would be urgently needed to move people and goods in the area. For several days, Saint Vincent had limited access to clean water and electricity, and airports and seaports had to close. The eruption is also affecting the livelihoods of the already vulnerable population on Saint Vincent, and will likely have a strong negative impact on the economy in the months and even years to come. The large amounts of volcanic ash represent a multi-hazard component. Ambient air quality, for example, is severely affected due to fine particles within the volcanic ash that may cause acute respiratory conditions, such as asthma and bronchitis symptoms. At the same time, the eruption affected both terrestrial and marine ecosystems. The chemical makeup of ash, for instance, can burn vegetation and plants, and the damage of agricultural crops in particular can lead to food insecurity.
In combination with heavy rainfall, and with the onset of the rainy season in the Caribbean, one of the most threatening volcanic hazards is generated in form of so-called lahars (Indonesian term for a “volcanic mudflow”). Along with debris flows, lahars are masses of rock, mud and water rapidly traveling downslope in rugged terrain many miles down valleys, heavily affecting and destroying any local settlement or infrastructure in their way.
In April, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (UN OCHA) Geneva Office received a request for international environmental assistance from the Government of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. In response to this request and in close coordination with the UN Resident Coordinator, the UNEP/OCHA Joint Environment Unit dispatched a team of 12 experts to Kingstown to provide technical advice on geology (volcanology, lahar/mudflows, etc.), ash management (cleanup and disposal), environmental pollution, ecology and green humanitarian response. These experts were on the ground in Saint Vincent, but they received remote support from Bonn by a scientific team of UNU-EHS as part of the so-called Remote Environmental Assessment & Analysis Cell.
The team in Bonn facilitated communication and information exchange between the field team deployed to Saint Vincent and a larger group of scientific institutions, first of all regional scientific institutes such as the University of the West Indies Seismic Research Centre (UWI SRC) and the Caribbean Institute for Meteorology and Hydrology (CIMH), but also international organizations such as the United States Geological Survey (USGS), the International Charter ‘Space and Major Disasters’ and EU Copernicus, MapAction, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), the International Volcanic Health Hazard Network (IVHHN), UK Independent Incident Advisors, and the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF).
“This kind of remote support is gaining more and more importance for international disaster response activities, especially in light of current constraints and limitations of teams being deployed under COVID-19 conditions,” said UNU-EHS Senior Scientist Dr. Joerg Szarzynski, who spearheaded the mission on behalf of UNU-EHS´s Global Mountain Safeguard Research programme (GLOMOS). He was supported by a team of upper-level students from the master’s programme “Geography of Environmental Risks and Human Security”, a joint programme by UNU-EHS and the University of Bonn.
All the way from Bonn, the team established a dashboard information management system to collect, update and present information relevant to the disaster response and recovery. This dashboard was fed with available maps and satellite imagery, as well as news and situation reports and with information received directly from the field. The team also collected information on ecological restoration for post-disaster early recovery and reconstruction.
“It has been an honor to be able to support the UN field mission from abroad and thus to support the Island of Saint Vincent,” added Szarzynski, who is heading the GLOMOS programme Bonn office at UNU-EHS. “For us, this is where we feel we can make the biggest contribution, when we take our scientific expertise and turn it into action.”
Also after the field mission is accomplished, Dr. Szarzynski and his students will continue with their work in the form of different masters theses research projects that are developed in direct close collaboration with scientists in the region, most importantly with UWI SRC. One such project will be conducted by master’s student Niroj Sapkota from Nepal, who will be analyzing the modelling potential of areas affected by lahars in Saint Vincent in the aftermath of the volcanic eruption. He will be supported by Dr. Victoria Miller, Research Fellow and Volcanologist with UWI SRC based at the Montserrat Volcano Observatory (MVO). “Lahar is a key hazard right now in St Vincent and will remain an ongoing hazard for a sustained period of time” said. Dr. Miller. “As a researcher with a focus on risk I also appreciate the merits of bringing the exposed environment, people, buildings etc., into such studies for a holistic approach that can provide an evidence base for decision makers.”
As a student, Sapkota pointed out the unique learning experience that the remote response provided to him: “My hands-on experience during this activity not only allowed me to better understand and implement the underlying theoretical knowledge of disaster response, but it also helped me to recognize existing scientific research needs in the region as an opportunity to support the government in its recovery process, hand in hand with experienced local scientists.”
Global Mountain Safeguard Research (GLOMOS) is a collaborative programme and scientific alliance between UNU-EHS and Eurac Research. The goal of GLOMOS is to contribute to the development of resilient mountain communities towards natural and man-made hazards and disaster risks and to protect the wealth of biological and cultural diversity. Dr. Szarzynski also serves as official member of the United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC) Team and deploys with UN missions into the field.