3 PhD Students, one beautiful Caribbean island and 130 kilograms of volcano……
Sometime in the dark and dreary months of February/March this year, we three first year PhD students got some AMAZING news….. Our supervisor/co-supervisor was headed to the Caribbean for a week of volcano-related outreach and guess what? She needed to take some extra people to carry her GIANT VOLCANO EXHIBIT!!!! This presented a very difficult choice, go to the Caribbean…. or stay in Norwich. Ultimately, we were “persuaded” to take up the offer of an all-expenses paid trip to the island of St Vincent – not just for the sun, sea and sand but because this was an excellent opportunity to hone our skills in organisation, science communication, community outreach and time management (of course!). Not to mention the chance to climb an active volcano – something we volcanologists literally can’t get enough of! St Vincent is a volcanic island located in the Caribbean, not far from Barbados (which coincidentally is not volcanic!). The volcano on St Vincent is classified as Active which means it has had an eruption in the last 10,000 years. In fact La Soufriere (the volcano) has actually erupted several times in the last 150 years including two large scale eruptions, one in 1902 and one on Good Friday, 1979. Island communities are particularly vulnerable to volcanic hazards as they essentially live right on the volcano itself and are relatively cut off from outside assistance. For this reason, many volcanic islands in the Caribbean hold some sort of volcano awareness event each year, on St Vincent this takes the form of a week of community events designed to engage schoolchildren and adults living in high risk areas for volcanic hazards. This year marks the final stages of a long-term project called STREVA (Strengthening Resilience in Volcanic Areas) which Jenni Barclay (our supervisor) is a part of. STREVA is an innovative interdisciplinary project, led by the University of East Anglia, that works collaboratively across different disciplines to develop and apply a practical and adaptable means to analyse risk. Over the course of the project, STREVA members have been working with the Vincentian people to compile a historical and cultural record of the eruptions of 1902 and 1979, as well as develop a more detailed timeline of the past activity of the volcano. This year, to give back ownership of the research to the communities involved, STREVA produced a portable volcano-shaped exhibit in association with the University of the West Indies Seismic Research Centre (UWI SRC) and the St Vincent National Emergency Management Office (NEMO). This included poems, newspaper articles and first-hand accounts of the 1902 and 1979 eruptions of La Soufriere collected throughout the project. The purpose of our trip was to transport, construct and present the exhibit – helping SRC and NEMO to take control of the activities so that they and the exhibit (which has been left on-island) can be used in years to come to assist the dissemination of historical, cultural and scientific knowledge of volcanic hazards at La Soufriere.
The team – plus 17 bags of exhibit waiting at Gatwick for our long flight to the Caribbean.
After a fairly chaotic week of resource printing and exhibit packing we finally headed off to the island of St Vincent by some miracle with everything and everyone we needed (apart from one roll of black plastic rubble sacks)! We spent the first few days de-stressing in the sea and some of us even participated in possibly the most idyllic “writing retreat” in the world. Soon enough though it was time to head northwards and set up the exhibit ready for the start of Volcano Awareness Week. Everyone was a little nervous about how this festival-style outreach was going to go, with various levels of experience in the team we weren’t really sure how this was going to work – we baby PhD students had some serious imposter syndrome going on…..
'To say we were anxious about getting the exhibit to St Vincent intact is an understatement. Had our 6 hours of bubble-wrapping been worth it? The moment the final corners were linked during our practice-run, we all took a moment to sigh in relief - it had made it. An additional plus was that the team from the Seismic Research Centre actually liked it, too!’ – James
Working hard – this was the view we had from our work stations during our writing retreat….
Amazingly, as soon as the school kids arrived (in twice the numbers we were expecting) everyone began to seamlessly work as a team and we were able to have some really rich interactions between the children, the exhibit, our experiments and the other teams. Vincentian eruption poetry was read out in chorus, water/oil lava was made, mixed and erupted, and cola was sent flying up into the trees accompanied by the squeals of fleeing school kids trying not to get their immaculate school uniforms covered in cola-canic fallout – much fun was had.
Click Here to see the video of our time in St Vincent
We had several long and busy days of outreach during which time we were able to hand over control of the exhibit and experiments to the members of SRC which provided us with an opportunity to observe and learn from them. Not only were we able to see different styles of interaction but also to hear new ways of explaining the experiments. It is very easy to fall into the same patterns of explanation when doing the same experiment over and over and so this was a really great way to shake up and enrich our own outreach efforts for the future. We were lucky enough to see some top class science communication and work with some incredible people, something we will all remember for a long time (not to mention scoring major networking points!).
One particularly moving experience came during the community meeting on one of the evenings. There was an incredible Caribbean sunset casting a beautiful glow onto our fairy-lit exhibit and the room was packed full of people from the community of Chateaubelair and surrounding areas. Richy (from SRC) introduced their most recent hazard awareness project and then opened the floor to the audience asking them to share their experiences. After some initial tumbleweed moments, one woman stood and gave an impassioned speech to her community urging them to share their knowledge and concerns, it was incredible to watch and resulted in many more people standing to tell their stories of the 1979 eruption and more recent catastrophic flooding. This was finished off by a man standing and singing a calypso that he had written after the 1979 eruption, it was so good that we had to get him to come back and sing it for us inside the exhibit (click here to see the performance!). He was a real character and was able to tell us so much about the eruption and the volcano – a real focus of the STREVA project was gathering these histories together, enabling hazard planning and response to really get to grips with the way communities respond to hazards associated with the volcanic environment.
The exhibit looking beautiful covered in fairy lights (kindly donated by a local supermarket) during the evening community event.
The most beautiful sunset any of us have ever seen – every time we looked back the view just got better and better!!
The whole trip was rounded off with a community hike up the volcano – we set off from the leeward side of the island on a 3.5 hour hike up through the rainforest from the coast, climbing a grand total of 1234m. The rocks were pretty spectacular, outcrops >10m of single pyroclastic flows showing the real power of the volcano. More than 100 people from the island came along on the walk with even people in their 80’s eventually reaching the top! The view into the crater (although misty) was exciting – we could see the most recent lava dome in the centre and there was a distinct smell of sulphur hinting at the fiery centre to this giant green mountain. Fair to say – there was much jumping up and down with glee and cries of “IT’S A VOLCANO!” (Followed by promptly ducking for cover as we almost got blown off the side of the crater – turns out it’s windy up high….)
“I think we all felt pretty amazing when we reached the top of the volcano, it had been wet and steep but the views were amazing all the way up and it’s not every day you can say you climbed 1234m up an ACTIVE VOLCANO! Felt a little less impressed with my own fitness when I saw the 83 year old woman who had also made it to the top…” - Bridie
Team volcano looking a little worse for wear but still bloomin’ over the moon at the top of a very misty Soufriere
Soaked but stoked – not really managing a successful selfie but we didn’t care because that’s an active volcano in the background!
A rare glimpse of the dome within the crater of La Soufriere for us, before the eruption in 1979 there was a crater lake here. There is a local story of a mermaid living in the lake who was seen leaping to safety before the volcano erupted!
Needless to say, our experience on St Vincent was incredible and extremely valuable for our progression into the next stages of our PhDs. Often as a PhD student you look at your supervisors and and wonder “how do they manage to do all these things and make it look so easy?”. Well, it turns out the answer is through lots of hard work, good team working and management skills – something we got an insight into during our preparations for the event! One of the key things we found was that it is important to play to people’s strengths, whether that is creating outreach materials, negotiating the confusing process of booking 7 million flights for different times and places or being really good at gaffa taping things together!
We definitely learnt a lot about ourselves – our strengths, weaknesses and what we enjoy the most (basically we love volcanoes), as well as about St Vincent, the volcano and the relationship the surrounding communities have with their environment: a one in a million opportunity we are extremely glad not to have missed!
That’s us spelling out UEA in case you didn’t guess…..staying on brand.