‘Unlocked’ UK archives and testimonies of witnesses to volcanic eruptions to support St Vincent and the Grenadines in UNESCO World Heritage bid

06 July 2023

UK and Caribbean universities and research institutions have joined forces to study the history of volcanic crises with the aim of lessening impact of future eruptions on the people living near volcanoes.

A treasure trove of unlocked correspondence, photos and historic data have now uncovered stories from people and communities living near volcanoes in the Caribbean. These digitised records will be published online as part of the project titled ‘Curating Crises’. This rich collection of material will form part of St Vincent and the Grenadines’ bid to secure La Soufrière as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

An active stratovolcano, La Soufrière last erupted in 2021 and is the tallest volcano on the island of St Vincent with a summit at 1,220 m. The site is currently being considered for UNESCO world heritage status along with two other St Vincent bids. The data collected by the Curating Crises project will be part of the submission to UNESCO by September 2023 underscoring the site’s natural and cultural heritage.

The historic material combined with knowledge of recent practices in responding to volcanic events in the Eastern Caribbean can be used by communities living near volcanoes in St Vincent and Montserrat to better understand how local and indigenous peoples observed volcanic activity – from sights and sounds to smells and even physical sensations – and how they themselves can prepare more effectively for future eruptions.

Dr Erouscilla Joseph, Director of the University of the West Indies’ Seismic Research Centre (UWI SRC), said: “By embracing local knowledge and unlocking historic records, the UWI SRC can gain valuable insights into volcanic processes in the region, as well as the impacts of past volcanic eruptions. This can help us to communicate risks more effectively to the island communities we are dedicated to serving.”

Professor David Pyle, University of Oxford, said: “Local observers have first-hand experience of the volcanic landscapes in which they live and work. Often, their accounts of unrest and eruptions contain details that would otherwise be missed – these insights could provide vital learnings for those living near volcanoes today and in the future. However, colonial attitudes and practices of the past have meant some of this crucial data was not taken seriously and the contributions of local observers were often ignored in official records.

“By ‘unlocking’ these UK archives, not only are we able to support people around the world living near volcanoes, but it’s also a way of giving knowledge back to the local communities.”

One unlocked history tells of Mary Ann Robertson, whose name along with others was until now hidden in scientists’ field notebooks:

“In 1902 on St Vincent, Mary Ann Robertson described to visiting scientists on a Royal Society Expedition how the water in the crater was boiling, and the mountain ‘boomed’ and ‘shook’ with strong smells of sulphur before she rapidly turned back to try to warn the local population. It was early in the morning of the fateful 7 May eruption. Had her warnings been quickly heeded, more of the community might have been able to escape. Several women, used to seeing the volcano every day as they passed from one side of the island to the other, raised this alarm from the evening of the 6th until the morning of the 7th.”

Historical testimonies and data, much of which have only been accessible to those visiting libraries and archives in the UK, will now be made publicly available online, allowing those living near volcanoes to access vital information that could inform future crisis response.

Professor Jenni Barclay, University of East Anglia, said: “Preparing for volcanic eruptions is hard: there can be a lot of uncertainty about what might happen next, and their consequences can be severe. The best way to understand what might happen and how to act is to value and interrogate as many different types of knowledge as we can. The knowledge we have here is already improving our understanding of these Caribbean volcanoes.”

Visitors to this year’s Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition (4 — 9 July) will be able to see through the eyes (and smell through the noses) of the people of St Vincent and Montserrat to discover for themselves what it’s like to live near to an active volcano.

Among the activities, visitors can listen through an ash-covered radio and landline phone to hear Caribbean calypso music written about volcanic eruptions, and accounts from the people of Montserrat about life amongst the ash after the eruption in the 1990s. They can hear sounds generated from real seismic data through a ‘listening trumpet’, in the style designed by volcanologist Frank Perret in the early 1900s. They can smell real volcanic rock, imbued with a bespoke scent, ‘tropical volcano’, and attempt to navigate an eruption in a decision-making game, ‘The Floor is Magma’.

Curating Crises involves the University of East Anglia and University of Oxford together with the Royal Society and National Archives in the UK to unearth records of past eruptions, and the University of the West Indies’ Seismic Research Centre and Montserrat Volcano Observatory in the Caribbean to share historical data and information held in local archives.

The Summer Science Exhibition takes place at the Royal Society, Carlton House Terrace, London, SW1Y 5AG from Tuesday 4 July 2023 to Sunday 9 July 2023. The event is free and open to the public.

Download the full programme for the Summer Science Exhibition (PDF). Twitter hashtag: #summerscience