Using Film to Reduce Risk on Volcanoes

For people to cope with environmental hazards, they need to understand threats – a key step that can lead to behavior change. A recent paper by Anna Hicks et al., published in the International Journal for Disaster Risk Reduction, describes the importance of communicating glacier hazards and other risks. The authors made videos and then assessed their effectiveness for risk communication in volcanically-active communities. The films were used to communicate findings from the Strengthening Resilience in Volcanic Areas (STREVA1) project, led by the University of East Anglia in the UK, in order to apply effective volcanic risk assessments.

A view of La Soufrière on St. Vincent (Source: Kevin Gabbert/Creative Commons).

Hicks et al. selected two sites with histories of volcanic activity, Colombia and a Caribbean island, St. Vincent, as case studies for the videos. These sites were attractive for other reasons: St. Vincent has a high use of digital media, and Colombia has large at-risk populations across the entire country. As a result, film could be used to communicate across broad audiences in boith cases.

St. Vincent has one prominent volcano called La Soufrière. La Soufrière comprises about a third of the island’s area. It last erupted in 1979, but the eruption that occurred in 1902 was much more devastating, killing around 1,500 people on the island. Colombia, on the other hand, has 57 volcanoes. Many of them are stratovolcanoes (over 4000 meters), and a large number are glacier-capped. Hicks et al. focused on the glaciated Nevado del Ruiz during the film-making process.

Volcán Galeras in Colombia (Source: Josecamilom/Creative Commons).

Hicks et al. took a co-productive approach and made the intended audience the major focus of the films. The series of videos featured firsthand accounts from witnesses of previous eruptions and secondhand accounts shared by community elders with younger generations. The interviews were intended to create an emotional response from the viewers. The eruptions featured in the films occurred at least a generation ago, allowing Hicks et al. to explore how film can impact social memory. The series included reflections on eruptions that occurred in the past, and how to prepare for possible ones in the future.

By making the videos for St. Vincent, over a year earlier than the series for Colombia, the authors learned the importance of the filming process and the final product in improving people’s knowledge of risks and behavior change. Each film was designed to increase awareness of eruptions, while also maintaining and strengthening social and cultural memory of the events.

The films were screened in each community and then followed by in-person surveys. The films sought to dispel myths about the volcanoes and improve preparedness. The results of the survey indicated improvements in knowledge, as well as success at empowering people to act. For example, one of the participants in St. Vincent noted “the speed at which the flow can get to the Rabacca river and cut us off if we do not adhere to the early evacuation process.” As Hicks et al. describe in the paper, many of the attendees had never actively sought information on eruptions before and engaged for the first time during the film screening and consequent workshops.

A still of Guillermo Tapias, a resident featured in “Nevado Del Ruiz Remembering 1985” (Source: Streva Project).

In the paper, Hicks et al. explain that risk communication “will have more success if it is rooted in the socio-cultural context in which the risk is understood.” Adopting concepts from David Cash, the information should be credible (believable and trusted) and salient (relevant).

The authors chose film specifically because it is an effective way to communicate concepts or risks that are difficult to imagine or understand. Dr. Kerry Milch, a research associate at the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED) at Columbia University, explained to GlacierHub how film could convey these concepts. She described that film can be effective because it makes people react in visceral ways by targeting the emotional part of the brain, which can be very motivating. Milch explained that this needs to be connected to concrete actions to help individuals feel empowered. Hicks et al. also explain how film has the capacity to capture oral histories, which are culturally significant in many communities. Oral histories are often shared intergenerationally and are effective as a method of disaster risk reduction because they come from trusted individuals.

A resident featured in “Living with the volcano – La Soufrière St Vincent” (Source: Streva Project).

Skepticism of scientific projections around eruptions can be problematic. Dr. Erik Klemetti, a geosciences professor at Denison University, explained in an interview to GlacierHub that the 1985 eruption of Nevado Del Ruiz in Colombia caused a lot of mistrust of outside scientists within the community. Geologists monitoring the area struggled to convey the risk of eruption to the local community, and when the eruption led to many deaths, the community grew more mistrusting of scientists. Therefore, for Hicks et al., involving the community in the risk communication was crucial.

They used a co-productive approach in risk communication. The people in St. Vincent and Colombia featured in the videos also helped select the sites used in filming, as well the film’s content. This process gave a voice to the communities. Hicks et al. recommend the co-productive method be integrated into a comprehensive disaster risk reduction plan. While not feasible for every community or climate-related risk, films could be a successful risk communication tools in many other regions.