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Science Versus Policy: UB Research on Vesuvius Triggers Controversy

Issues are explored in History Channel's "Mega Disasters" episode

Release Date: December 6, 2007

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Michael Sheridan, director of UB's Center for Geohazards Studies, was interviewed by the History Channel on campus last spring. The show MegaDisasters: The Next Pompeii? airs Dec. 8 at 4 pm.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- In the spring of 2006, a paper published in a scientific journal by researchers at the University at Buffalo and two scientific institutions in Italy reported that approximately 4,000 years ago during the Bronze Age, Vesuvius produced an eruption that devastated the area now occupied by metropolitan Naples.

The authors suggested that this event -- more powerful than the famous Pompeii eruption -- should be a reference for current hazard planning for metropolitan Naples, home to more than 3 million people.

It wasn't exactly welcome news in Naples, where hazard mitigation plans did not include the possibility that the next eruption of Vesuvius might pose a serious threat to Naples.

The public debate that ensued, and which is still ongoing, is explored in an episode of the History Channel's "Mega Disasters" series called "The Next Pompeii?" which airs Saturday (Dec. 8, 2007) at 4 p.m. EST.

Filmed in part at the Center for Computational Research in UB's New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences, "The Next Pompeii?" prominently features three UB professors, including Michael F. Sheridan, Ph.D., director of UB's Center for Geohazards Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences and an author of the paper on Vesuvius that was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

That paper inspired the idea for the episode, as well as major international broadcast and print media coverage, including a multi-page feature article in September's National Geographic.

The controversy that followed is a classic example, Sheridan said, of how much -- or how little -- influence science has over public policy on extreme events.

"There are lots of different ways of dealing with such huge potential natural disasters," he said, "and frankly, one way is sweeping it under the carpet. Always what's at issue is 'What are the possible events and their probabilities?' Sure, a meteorite could strike New York City, but the probability of that is very, very slight. However, when you're living near a volcano, which has erupted in the past, the probability of a disaster happening in the future goes up as time passes. It's like living in a high-crime district -- you're bound to get robbed sooner or later."

The media attention that followed the scientific publication on Vesuvius could not go unnoticed by Italian civil authorities, Sheridan said.

"The first response from national authorities in Italy was rejection of the notion that the next eruption of Vesuvius could bury Naples in ash," said Sheridan, who is frequently in contact with his Italian colleagues.

After the initial controversy subsided, Sheridan said the national authorities reconsidered some of the evidence in the PNAS paper.

"Public controversy caused them to take another look at our hypothesis," said Sheridan. "From what I understand, officials in the city of Naples are now considering opinions from a broader group of researchers."

While no new plans have yet been adopted, Sheridan said it is "good and healthy" that the scale of the next potential eruption of Vesuvius is now being reviewed by more experts.

"I think if the same people keep discussing the same problem with the same information, they will always come to the same conclusion," he said. "If experts with a range of viewpoints come to the table with different sets of data and different models about how a natural phenomenon works, the level of confidence in the solution is bound to be higher."

New technology also is playing a larger role in determining how to deal with extreme events, added Sheridan, UB professor emeritus of geology.

The Center for Geohazards Studies, which he directs, is one component in UB's strategic strength in mitigation and response to extreme events identified in the UB 2020 strategic plan being implemented by the university with the goal of rising among the ranks of the nation's public research universities. The center represents an interdisciplinary group of faculty researchers from the physical and social sciences, engineering and the medical sciences.

"Just in the past five years, we have been able to use new technology to add various 'weighting' measures to specific models or theories in order to determine the probability that an extreme event will affect a given area. By utilizing all likely models, we aren't forced into choosing one theory over another," Sheridan said.

"At the Center for Geohazards Studies, we're using a technique called Bayesian probability, which allows us to attach a value to uncertainties based on other assumptions. Such calculations are useful in modeling a future extreme event," he said. "Current research is moving toward developing models that best communicate the hazard potential with the objective of minimizing loss of life and property."

Sheridan's colleague in extreme events research, Chris S. Renschler, Ph.D., UB associate professor of geography, also is featured in the Mega Disasters episode. Renschler, whose research focuses on geo-spatial modeling of natural resources, has collaborated with Sheridan on ways to precisely visualize volcanoes and model volcanic debris flow and other geophysical phenomena in order to better predict how and where they might occur and the impact they would have.

Maurizio Trevisan, SUNY Distinguished Professor and former dean of UB's School of Public Health and Health Professions, now vice chancellor and chief executive officer of the University of Nevada Health Sciences System, also is featured on the History Channel show.

For decades, Sheridan has worked with civil protection authorities in Mexico, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Guatemala and other countries, mapping hazards from active volcanoes to help responsible authorities identify the best methods for protecting citizens.

Sheridan's co-authors on the PNAS paper were Giuseppe Mastrolorenzo, senior researcher, and Lucia Pappalardo, researcher, at Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Volcanologia-Osservatorio Vesuviano and Pierpaolo Petrone, technical administrator at the Museo di Antropologia, Centro Musei delle Scienze Naturali.

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Ellen Goldbaum
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Tel: 716-645-4605
goldbaum@buffalo.edu
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