Public communication on the dangers and risks of volcanoes, the Vesuvius experience
Volcanoes are one of the public’s most popular scientific issues, and the request for information about them based on volcano research is particularly frequent and considerable in active volcanic areas. Education and information programmes play an important role in natural risk mitigation measures. A long-term effort in educational programmes is essential to convey simple, clear and complete information able to contribute to a better understanding of unusual natural features within a territory and the related hazards and risks.
In Italy, the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV) promotes education and outreach activities relating to natural risks. Activities focused on volcanic risk in particular are mainly carried out by INGV sections of the Osservatorio Vesuviano, in Neapolitan area, in collaboration with the Civil Defence Department.
The Osservatorio Vesuviano, founded in 1841, was the first volcano observatory in the world, and is a scientific institution interested in geophysics and volcanic research mainly on Neapolitan volcanoes. It also carries out actions aimed at broadening scientific awareness in terms of geological phenomena, and in particular volcanic-related hazards.
The educational programmes provided are mostly aimed at schools. At the historic Osservatorio building, school groups are welcomed daily and given a guided visit of the permanent exhibition which provides visitors with a comprehensive view of scientific research on volcanic phenomena, their related hazards and the emergency plans for the Neapolitan volcanoes, which are shown through posters, short texts and videos.
The general public are also free to visit during the weekend. Each year the observatory welcomes more than 12,000 visitors, from Italy and abroad. Courses have been given to school teachers working in the part of the Neapolitan area exposed to the highest volcanic risk, sometimes in co-operation with Civil Defence officers. The aim of these courses is to give to the teachers the cultural background necessary to transfer a risk culture to their students and colleagues, but at the same time to develop a new multi-disciplinary approach to volcanic issues.
Seminars aimed at illustrating the history and present state of the Neapolitan volcanoes are held in schools, universities and other public and private institutions.
Very often meetings are held in non-conventional places and contexts, using an informal approach, to bring science out of the laboratories and universities and closer to everyday life.
In the last few years, the Osservatorio Vesuviano has played its role of a scientific reference through projects proposed by schools themselves, such as the European project „Comenius 2004/2006“ that has put into practice a multinational and interdisciplinary educational approach, involving four high schools from different countries in activities related to major natural risks. Each school has a scientific institution as its „tutor“. The Italian high school has dealt with the volcanic hazards and risks that characterize the area surrounding the city of Naples, with the Osservatorio Vesuviano acting as its scientific referee.
The Neapolitan experiences highlight the fact that the scientific community is likely to be increasingly involved in outreach activities. To improve and to better orientate educational efforts, we have to learn to adapt communication languages and contexts to the public in question. We need to consider scientific communication as a tool in risk mitigation strategies, but also as a tool to promote scientific studies, and science as a possible choice for students‘ future careers.