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Interactive video lesson plan for: Volcanologists who Cried Wolf - The Armero Tragedy

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All the scientists’ calculations cannot cope with the unpredictability of nature. We do not know when the next devastating eruption will occur. Many volcanologists are still haunted by the memory of failures of volcanic prediction, tragic failures that cost the lives of more than 20,000 people in one gigantic eruption.

In 1976 the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe hears a terrifying warning. Volcanologists say that the islands massive La Soufrière volcano may soon erupt. They report that gas pressure is building up, and the authorities heed the scientists’ grim warning, 72,000 people are evacuated at a cost of millions of dollars. For four months the capital city of Basse-Terre is left as a ghost town. As the scientists continue to monitor the volcano that looms over the area houses are abandoned and desperate farm animals roam the streets looking for food. But the scientists have got it wrong, La Soufrière never did violently erupt.

Less than a decade later that failed prediction comes back to haunt volcanologists, when smoke starts rising from the 17,000 foot snow covered summit of Nevado del Ruiz in Colombia. Scientist warn that a likely eruption will send volcanic floods of melted snow and ice towards nearby towns. This time the scientists have got it right, but the authorities do not order a full evacuation. The volcano erupts in November 1985 and the predicted floods bury the entire town of Armero under a sea of grey ash and mud. An estimated 23,000 people die, 4,500 are injured, and 8,000 made homeless.

The disaster perfectly illustrates the dilemma facing all volcano scientists, cry wolf too often and nobody listens, fail to issue a strong enough warning, and thousands may die.

Their task is of vital importance as many of the 1500 active volcanoes on the planet currently are still considered utterly unpredictable, killing an average of 800 people per year, and threatening 500 million more who live near potentially dangerous volcanoes.

Clip taken from the Naked Science documentary “Volcano Alert”.

Watch it here - Coming soon!

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