June 2016 Letter from the Director

Richard Carlson
This month saw the first workshop of the new Science and Society initiative of Carnegie Science, headed by David and Edith Tatel. The topic of the first workshop was “Handling Hazards” and involved DTM’s Diana Roman, Lara Wagner, and myself. The project assembled a distinguished group of experts on the physical and social science, and public communication of the hazards from earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and hurricanes. The working group discussions made it obvious that science has a clear, important, and effective role to play in hazard mitigation. Also apparent was that even when predictions are spot-on, transmitting the prediction to the people who must respond to the disaster is fraught with potential difficulties, from a simple lack of understanding of the consequences of the hazard, to controlling misinformation, and properly considering the competing factors in how people evaluate and deal with risk and respond to an impending hazard.
 
Tom Jordan, Director of the Southern California Earthquake Center, presents the story of the 2009 L’Aquila, Italy, earthquake to the Handling Hazards working group in the Haskins Boardroom at Carnegie headquarters.  Miscommunication regarding the likelihood of the L’Aquila earthquake occurring resulted in the conviction of six scientists and a government official on a charge of involuntary manslaughter.  All but one of the convictions was later overturned. Photo courtesy of Carnegie Science.
 
Renato Solidum Jr., Director of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (PHILVOCS), pointed to the importance of educating the public in the best response to an impending hazard event well ahead of its occurrence. His compelling example noted there were minimal deaths associated with the storm surge from Typhoon Haiyan in areas of the Philippines where PHILVOCS had trained coastal residents in the proper response to tsunamis, compared to areas where this training had not taken place. 
 
A highlight of the Handling Hazards event was the Capital Science lecture by Chris Newhall and Renato Solidum Jr. that was cosponsored by Carnegie Science, the Philippines Embassy, the U.S.G.S., and the Smithsonian Institution. The tag-team lecture described the events leading up to the successful prediction of the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo 25 years ago, and the long-term consequences of the eruption. Although the various phases of the actual eruption lasted only a couple of months, the devastating consequences, notably mudflows, caused major damage even a decade after the eruption. DTM’s Diana Roman has made a recent important contribution to prediction of volcanic eruptions through her discovery that most repeating eruptions at Telica volcano in Nicaragua are preceded by periods of seismic quiescence, the duration of which can help predict the magnitude of the eruption to follow.  
 
Over the coming months, the Handling Hazards project will share similar stories through Carnegie special events that will provide examples of how the science of hazard prediction must be linked with a better understanding of the general public’s perception of the potential risks, policy makers’ need to develop appropriate mitigation and hazard response plans for both the long and short time scale, and the role of the media in conveying the information to the public in ways that minimize the consequences of natural disasters.
 
Diana Roman (left) moderating questions from the audience following the Capital Science lecture by Chris Newhall (center) and Renato Solidum Jr. (right) during the Handling Hazards workshop this month. Photo courtesy of @carnegiescience.
 
June also marks the end of the school year in most of the northern hemisphere, bringing up thoughts of summer vacation. As I’ve mentioned previously, for scientists, this often means travel to exotic places, like DTM, to pursue research that cannot be undertaken in their own laboratory. This year, we welcome back Frederick Roelofse and his student Pelele Lehloeynay from the University of the Free State, South Africa. New visitors to DTM include Megan Newcombe and Anna Barth from Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and Beatrice Mackay from the University of New Mexico. To return the favor, Brad Foley, a postdoc in the DTM geophysics group, has moved to join another DTM alum, Christelle Wauthier, as an assistant professor in the Penn State Department of Geosciences. With the exception of Mackay, most of the visitors listed above will be working with the DTM geochemistry group, taking advantage of the diverse and cutting-edge analytical facility we have developed. Beatrice Mackay will be working with Alycia Weinberger on data reduction from her observations of multiple sets of stars. We welcome them all and are looking forward to the results they produce.
 
Richard Carlson, Director, DTM
Carnegie Institution for Science

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Banner Image Caption:  View across the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, Arizona and Utah. Photo by Richard Carlson.