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Science During Crisis: The Application of Interdisciplinary and Strategic Science During Major Environmental Crises

Gary E. Machlis and Kristin Ludwig


On the French Caribbean island of Martinique in late April 1902, La Commission Sur le Volcan (Commission on the Volcano) met to decide a course of action. The island's Mt. Pelée was sending steam and smoke skyward, the smell of sulfur was in the air, and swarms of insects were moving down the mountain into neighboring cane fields. Frequent earthquakes and a thin layer of ash had set the population (particularly in the coastal city of St. Pierre) on edge and created a sense of crisis. The Commission included doctors, pharmacists, and science teachers, all appointed by the Governor. They discussed the potential of an eruption and what precautions, including evacuation, should be considered. The island was in the midst of general elections, complicating a response. After several meetings, the Commission made its decision, and announced “There is nothing in the activity of Pelée that warrants a departure from St. Pierre…the safety of St. Pierre [is] absolutely assured.” Posters were placed throughout the town announcing the public's safety.

On May 8 Mt. Pelée erupted with an incandescent, high-velocity ash flow, associated hot gases, and dust – a pyroclastic flow of great destructive power. The cloud of hot ash and gases raced into St. Pierre at an estimated speed of 160 km/h (Fig. 3.1).Approximately 30,000 residents (including all members of the Commission) died within minutes, leaving only two survivors. One eyewitness described the scene:

The whole side of the mountain seemed to gape open, and from the fissure belched a lurid whirlwind of fire, which wreathed itself into vast masses of flame as, with terrible speed, it

Fig. 3.1 Photograph of Mt. Pelée May 7, 1902 (Photograph by Angelo Helprin, survivor. St. Pierre, Martinique, French West Indies. 1902 collection, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-47617.

descended on the doomed town. Before the true extent of the peril could be grasped, the fiery mass swept like a river over the town, and thrusting the very waters of the sea before it, set the ships ablaze. (Fermor 1950)

Environmental crises require decisions, and such fateful decisions require science. The distinctive and increasingly critical role of interdisciplinary science – including the physical, biological, and social sciences – during environmental crises is the topic of this chapter.

The structural processes of science have long been studied and debated (see for example Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1962, and commentary by Sarder 2000). However, the distinctive context of science during crisis events – and how best to conduct and deliver “crisis” science – has largely been left to historians (such as Richard Rhodes in The Making of the Atomic Bomb, 1986), scientists engaged in such work (Freudenburg and Gramling 2011; Machlis and McNutt 2011; Lubchenco et al. 2012), and critics focused on specialized or unusual cases (Taleb 2007). Crises vary in intensity, consequence, and scope – and range from events of war and security to health and public safety. They are often reflected in the strange and vivid metaphors surrounding crisis management: “black swans,” “wicked problems,” “acute events,” and so forth (Rittel and Webber 1973; Taleb 2007; Brown et al. 2010).

Historical and contemporary experience suggests that science – including the physical, biological, and social sciences – plays an increasingly critical role in governmental and institutional responses to major environmental crises such as those caused by natural hazards or man-made disasters. Recent examples include major western US wildfires (2009), the Deepwater Horizon oil spill (2010), the Fukushima nuclear plant failures (2011), and Hurricane Sandy (2012).

Understanding the structural processes of science during environmental crises may have considerable value in developing best practices for the conduct and delivery of science during crisis. In addition, focusing on the potential role of social science during these events is critical to social science practitioners and the broader community of scientists, decision makers, and emergency responders who use social science to inform crisis response. There is also a substantial need to better define the roles of strategic and tactical science during crises. While tactical science focuses on immediate challenges and technical solutions, strategic science focuses on the longer-term issues of response and recovery, and considers longer chains of cascading consequences than is typical in tactical approaches (Machlis and McNutt 2010, 2011).

In this chapter, we explore the role and significance of science – including all disciplines and focusing attention on the social sciences – in responding to the needs of emergency response and recovery during major environmental crises. First, we examine the role of science during two recent major environmental crisis events – the Deepwater Horizon oil spill (2010) and Hurricane Sandy (2012). Second, we briefly review several specific examples of social science applied to environmental crisis events – Cyclone Sidr in Bangladesh (2007), the Puerto Aysen earthquake in Chile (2007), and Hurricane Katrina in the US (2005). Third, we identify several distinctive characteristics of strategic science during environmental crises. Finally, we describe a modest research agenda to advance the role of science during environmental crises.

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