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Fuego caught on camera

The devastating eruption at Fuego highlights the critical importance of research into the effective communication of volcanic hazards

On June 3rd, Volcán de Fuego in southern Guatemala began erupting. Over 100 people are reported dead and several hundred more are still missing. The ferocity of the eruption caught local people and the government agencies responsible for natural hazard monitoring and mitigation largely by surprise.

Naïvely, I’ve often thought of eruptions as largely ‘predictable’ natural hazards, at least compared to the impossibilities of forecasting devastating earthquakes. Tremendous advances in satellite, seismic and geochemical monitoring allow scientists to track volcanic inflations and deflations, changes in gas emissions and, to an extent, sub-surface magma movements, giving clues to the imminence of an eruption. But, of course, forecasts are only as good as our monitoring capabilities and are limited by gaps in our understanding of fundamental volcanic processes. The events at Fuego are a reminder of how complex and unpredictable these beasts can be.

The last major eruption at Fuego occurred in 1974. The volcano has been almost continuously active since 2002, with several smaller blasts in 2007, 2012 and 2015, prompting evacuations. Many local people likely have first-hand experience of the threats posed by the volcano and most will have heard stories from friends and family.

It was shocking then to see numerous videos surfacing of pyroclastic flows—filmed at remarkably close range. Images of tumbling, tumultuous clouds of searing hot ash and gases racing over tree tops and along valley floors towards bystanders, smart phones held aloft as they recorded the unfolding events. I watched the videos with my jaw on the floor and screaming ‘run!’ in my head. The viewers seemed completely unaware of how fast these flows can travel and the threat they pose.

The footage is a stark reminder of the importance of collaboration between local communities, authorities and scientists for understanding the risk that volcanoes pose and how to respond during an eruption. In this issue, Anna Hicks and Jenni Barclay discuss the power of film in this endeavour. They have shown that films featuring local residents significantly improve the effectiveness of the communications – recognisable faces and locations inspire audiences to take ownership of their risk and steps to strengthen resilience.

At Fuego, many victims were found close to their homes, implying that they were unable to flee, powerless to put into action any hazard response plans. But, as the videos show, there are still gaps in understanding. Hazard and risk communication remains a vital area of research.


•    Hicks, A. et al. (2017) Risk communication films: Process, product and potential for improving preparedness and behaviour change. International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction 23, 138-151.
•    The Guardian: Videos of the Fuego eruption (on YouTube) (Published on 3 Jun 2018).

Whitchurch, A., Fuego caught on camera. Geoscientist 28 (7), 5, 2018;