Opinion: Science communication on trial following White Island disaster

A scientific agency has pled not guilty to charges stemming from the 2019 White Island/Whakaari volcano disaster. Should scientists be held accountable for insufficiently conveying the risk of an impending eruption?

By John Mutter, Ph.D., Professor of Earth & Environmental Sciences and Professor of International & Public Affairs, Columbia University

Citation: Mutter, J., 2021, Opinion: Science communication on trial following White Island disaster, Temblor, http://doi.org/10.32858/temblor.214

Not again.

This time it’s New Zealand and a volcano, not an earthquake in Italy.

White Island volcano (also known by its Maori name, Whakaari), one of New Zealand’s most active volcanoes, erupted in December 2019, killing 22 people and injuring another 25. The injured suffered horribly; many were burned by super-hot sulfurous volcanic ash, from which they may never fully recover.

In November of 2020, WorkSafe New Zealand brought charges against ten organizations and three individuals for their role in the tragedy. The defendants were accused of violating various sections of the NZ Health and Safety at Work Act. Among the defendants are government agencies, GNS Science and the National Emergency Management Agency.

The victims of the eruption were tourists and their guides, who came to the island to get close to an active volcano. Maybe they knew it was active. After all, the pleasure of being in an exotic and dangerous place and surviving to show photos and retell the experience can be part of the allure for tourists. But apparently, they didn’t know just how active it was.

Should they have? How could they? Should someone have told them?

island with rim of high hills surrounding low center crater.
Aerial view of the Whakaari volcano in 2013. Credit: gérard, via flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)


Whakaari is clearly active

Whakaari is the emergent part of a submarine volcano, growing upward from the ocean floor. No one lives or even stays overnight on the periphery of the volcano, though it is grassy and has water. Sulfur mines, once operating on the island, were abandoned in the 1930s, after several fatal accidents. Some ruined mining structures are still visible. Tour boats, which bring tourists for day trips to the volcano, land on a crude pier.

The volcanos that form near New Zealand’s North Island are not like shield volcanoes, such as Mt. Kilauea on the Big Island of Hawaii, in which slow moving lava flows almost continuously from fissures. You can often walk quite close to, and run away from, a Hawaiian lava.

But Whakaari is different.

Volcanos that form near an active tectonic convergent plate boundary are generally explosive — unpredictably so. These stratovolcanoes erupt in a ferocious blast of hot rock, ash and gas.
Explosive eruptions are relatively common on Whakaari; prior to the 2019 disaster, the volcano had last erupted in 2016.

But who is responsible for letting people know when a volcanic eruption will happen?

GNS Science is the main Earth science research and consultancy agency in New Zealand. GeoNet, the vehicle of GNS for monitoring and reporting volcanic activity in New Zealand publishes alerts of the status of each volcano in the country. But the alert scale, which ranges from 0 to 5, is more than a bit fuzzy in definition and subject to interpretation. It is not an objective measure of risk. Alert level 2 doesn’t mean the volcano is twice as dangerous as level 1.

GeoNet had raised the alert level for Whakaari to 2 well before the fatal eruption.

A 2 out of 5 doesn’t sound very threatening, especially to someone not familiar with the nuances of the scale. Nor is the alert level a prediction of what might happen in the future. It is explicitly not a prediction.

But the charges against the science agencies are not about a failure to predict — they are about a failure to warn.

rubble next to remnants of a building
Ruins of sulfur mines on Whakaari. Credit: nzgabriel (CC BY 2.0)


An unusual charge for a scientific agency

It is unusual for a scientific agency or scientists to be charged in connection with a disaster, but it is not without precedent. One prior instance of any note comes to mind. In April 2009, at 3:32 in the morning, a magnitude-6.3 earthquake took the lives of 309 people in L’Aquila Italy. The victims were mostly asleep, possibly unaware of the shaking, and had no time to take action that may have saved their lives, like getting out of their houses or under their beds.

Following the incident, Italian government prosecutors, on behalf of 29 surviving family members, brought charges against the seven members of the Major Risks Committee, an Italian government agency whose role was to do what its name suggests: assess major risks.

In the weeks before the magnitude-6.3 quake, the region surrounding the city of L’Aquila was experiencing an increasing level of seismic activity, including a jarring magnitude-4.0 quake one week prior to the mainshock. Residents were anxious, and many were sleeping outside their houses, out of fear of a building collapse should a big quake strike.

The Major Risks Committee was called in from Rome, 60 miles (100 kilometers) away, to assess the likelihood of a major earthquake. Committee members were asked, in effect, to determine if the earthquake sequence that residents were experiencing were foreshocks — premonitions of an impending large quake. From the formal perspective of the science of seismology, that is a difficult thing to do. It is more or less impossible. Earthquakes are not predictable.

The committee sent mixed messages to the public. Their formal judgement was that they couldn’t determine whether the earthquakes were, or were not, foreshocks. Although accurate, that was not much help to the people of L’Aquila. Based on that information, what should the public do?

One member of the committee, Bernardo De Bernardinis, went rogue and said, inexplicably, that there was no danger. Because of that, prosecutors argued that many people went back to sleeping indoors and died as a consequence.

Rubble surrounding white building with columns, roof collapsed.
A government office disrupted by the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake. Credit: TheWiz83, via Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)


A failure to warn

Knowing whether the puffing and wheezing of a volcano portends an eruption is also a difficult task. Maybe it’s not quite as hard as predicting an earthquake, but it is a tough challenge, nonetheless.

But in neither the L’Aquila or Whakaari cases were the scientists or their agencies actually charged with failing to predict a natural event. Although in media reports and in the minds of many seismologists, the Italian scientists were standing trial for just that. They were actually accused of criminal negligence — professional misconduct, in common language. The formal charge was manslaughter.

Failing to predict a natural event is almost assuredly not a crime on the statutes in Italy, New Zealand, or anywhere else. If it were, hundreds of meteorologists would be in prison.

Is a failure to warn a crime?

The controversial moral philosopher, Peter Singer, wrote:

“If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.”

Was it in the power of the L’Aquila seven to prevent something bad from happening? Was it in the power of any of the accused in New Zealand to prevent the Whakaari tragedy? It was not possible to prevent the volcano from erupting or the Earth from releasing pent up energy,
but could the fatalities have been prevented?

Nothing of “comparable moral importance” was in play in either case. Profits from tours to Whakaari are not of comparable moral importance. So, in Singer’s philosophical framing, the issue before the court is about preventing something bad from happening “if it is in our power.”

If it isn’t in your power to prevent the physical paroxysm, which is clearly a bad thing, what then?

All a scientist can do is raise and alert or make a happier assessment — the weekend weather looks like it will be great. But if the forecaster is wrong, they cannot be charged with, well, anything. But if the forecaster says “go ahead and plan your outdoor wedding,” and it rains and the costly event is a messy disaster, they may be culpable because they gave an unwise instruction. That’s why it is very uncommon for a TV weatherperson to say anything so declarative.

The L’Aquila seven were convicted. Six of the defendants had their convictions overturned. De Bernardinis, had his conviction upheld, but on appeal received a suspended sentence. He had been the most flippant in his statements to the public. He had directed people what to do.

Some seismologists remain horrified at the fact that their Italian colleagues were charged, let alone convicted, of what they still believe was a failure to predict.

The charges in the Whakaari case are similar to those that the L’Aquila seven faced. GNS Science has pled not guilty. No convictions have been handed down yet.

An engineer, doctor, or lawyer can be charged with wrongful death due to negligence or malfeasance. Why not people in other professions? Why not scientists? Can a scientist’s negligence cause “something bad to happen,” when preventing such is a moral duty?

My guess, which is all it can be at this point, is that those accused in the Whakaari case will be exonerated — just as six of the L’Aquila seven eventually were. The case will be that you simply cannot tell when a volcano will erupt, or an earthquake will happen.

The tourists on Whakaari paid their money and took their chances, not knowing what their chances were, because no one can. They may have even signed waivers. If they had known the alert level had been raised, would they still have taken the tour? My guess is, yes, they would have, or most of them would have. It would have been even more exciting.

Yet again, it comes down to the perplexing interface between science and the public. So much has been written about this turbulent nexus that it is hard to think about what new can be said. Litigation is unlikely to change anything. Perhaps some introspection about our moral responsibilities can.