Volcanic simulation teaches Earth Sciences students crisis management skills

Postdoctoral fellow Jeffrey Zurek, centre, confers with students in the 'Emergency Management B.C. team' during a volcanic simulation exercise in early December 2017.

Earth sciences professor Glyn Williams-Jones, right, confers with the students on the 'Geological Survey of Canada' team during the volcanic simulation exercise.

December 14, 2017

Imagine a scenario where a volcano is about to erupt and you are responsible for deciding what to do next. Who should be alerted and who needs to be evacuated? Where and when might lava start flowing? How dangerous will the gas and ash emissions be?

This is what Earth Sciences 421 students experienced during a five-hour volcano simulation exercise in early December.

Initially developed at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, the simulation received a Canadian spin from earth sciences professor Glyn Williams-Jones and postdoctoral fellow Jeffrey Zurek, thanks to a grant from SFU’s Institute for the Study of Teaching and Learning in the Disciplines.

“We substituted Mt. Meager near Pemberton, B.C. as the live volcano and adapted the data to fit the style of activity we would expect from Mt. Meager—something similar to the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens” says Williams-Jones.

Students were divided into two teams; the Emergency Management B.C. team responsible for B.C. parks and human, agricultural and biological impacts; and the Geological Survey of Canada team responsible for deciding which level of emergency should be activated based on field data such as seismic and ash reports, geochemistry and weather conditions.

Both teams were fed “real-time” events and data condensed from a three-month timescale of a hypothetical eruption. From the time that the first earthquakes were felt, to a large eruption and subsequent dome explosions of built up lava, students were expected to work with their team to assess the danger, impact and actions necessitated by each event.

When the teams felt they had enough sound information to share with the public and their emergency partners, they staged a press conference. Colleagues and graduate students played the roles of the Prime Minister, the Mayor of Pemberton and concerned citizens, and posed difficult questions to the teams.

To keep the simulation as realistic as possible, Williams-Jones and Zurek had earlier led the students on a two-day field trip to explore Mt. Meager. The class spent the remainder of the semester analyzing the volcanic activity that has taken place since Mt. Meager’s last eruption more than 2,400 years ago.

Teaching assistant Rachel Warwick did the exercise as an undergrad and says, “It was an eye-opening experience on hazard and crisis management.”

She admits it was pretty stressful but says, “It was a great way to actually use knowledge that we had been learning all semester long.”

Zurek agrees that the realistic aspect of the simulation is key to the exercise.

“I think it’s important for the students to get real examples of how the course information can be used in the real world.”

He adds, “Without a multi-day field trip to a recent large volcanic eruption, I cannot think of a better way to bring the hazards and associated impacts into the classroom in a more tangible, hands-on way.”