Thursday, May 7, 2015

Geoethics as transdisciplinary meeting grounds

by Felix Riede
Felix Riede

(Associate Professor, PhD, Head of the Department of Archaeology, School of Culture & Society, Aarhus University, Denmark; email:

During the excellent recent EGU General Meeting 2015 in Vienna back in April, the IAPG organized a session on Geoethics for Society: general aspects and case studies in geosciences. I am an archaeologist working primarily with past human-environment relations and the impact of extreme environmental events – especially volcanic eruptions – on past communities. Attending the session on geoethics struck a deep cord with me. Several of the presented papers promoted a more explicit ethical engagement of geologists with society through the medium of geoheritage and geological practice. Martin Bohle in particular argued that narrative tools – stories – could be employed as powerful tools for generating interest in and engagement with issues such as environmental degradation, pollution, sustainability and risk. His argument is based on a recent paper under publication with the Geological Society of London.

What I find interesting here is that this use of narrative as a way of bridging science, policy-making and public engagement is promoted in very similar terms by sociologists and scholars in what is called the Environmental Humanities. The Australian environmental historian Kate Rigby (2015: 2), for instance, opens her recent book Dancing with Disaster with the following argument: “In a perilously warming world, the kinds of stories that we tell about ourselves and our relations with one another, as well as with non-human others and our volatile environment, will shape how we prepare for, respond to, and recover from increasingly frequent, and for the communities affected, frequently unfamiliar forms of eco-catastrophe…In particular, such narratives will crucially inform the ethos embodied in our responses to the risk, impacts, and aftermath of eco-catastrophe”. It is fair to say that her entire book, based on an earlier article of the same title, is one long argument for an environmental ethical engagement of humanists vis-à-vis both our geological and cultural heritage. But how can this be done?

Thinking of my own work on volcanic eruptions, it is clear that a close alliance between archaeology – providing qualified data on human impacts – and geology – providing qualified data on the geophysical properties of the event in question – can make for more robust scientific and narrative accounts. Our joint field sites can serve as what at times is called "collaboratries", joint transdisciplinary sites of scientific, educational and ethical engagement, as Peter Alagona and Gregory Simon argued back in 2010

Figure 1. The caldera relict of the
Laacher See volcano today
The Laacher See volcano is part of the Rhenish Shield volcanic province and its last cataclysmic eruption occurred around 13,000 years ago. The caldera remains (Figure 1) are located in the very western part of Germany smack in the middle of one of Germany's prime wine-growing areas and in a region that is today densely populated and frequently visited by tourists.

The eruption is well-understood thanks in large parts to the efforts of Hans-Ulrich Schmincke. Building on these earlier efforts, recent work has extended to known medial and distal ash fallout zone significantly. This extension is in turn driven by recent developments in crypto-tephra methods that enable the detection of otherwise invisible ash particles and layers. The near-vent area (~1400 km2) were completely destroyed and the nearby River Rhine impacted extensively by temporary damming and subsequent dam collapse and lahar-like flooding downstream. But mapping the fallout further afield shows how ash was transported both southwards and northwards. I have previously made the argument that contemporaneous communities of hunter-gatherers in northern Europe were quite strongly affected by this eruption. Can this case be used as geological and geopolitical worst-case scenario?

Figure 2. Mapping of the Laacher See ash fallout (circles= air-fall; triangles= fluvial) in relation to past land-sea configurations (light grey) and contemporary state boundaries. Many of the data-points plotted here can be found in the open-access depository tephrabase. The hazard zones have diameters of 50, 500 and 1000km respectively.

Figure 3. The global flight network
Mapping the eruption's past fallout in relation to today’s state boundaries shows that 13 countries were directly affected by air-fall ash from Italy in the south to Russia in the north, from France in the west to Poland in the east (Figure 2); judging by the chaotic responses to the recent, much smaller and more distant Eyjafjallajökull eruption in 2010 shows, though, that many more countries, communities and individuals would have been indirectly affected. Europe is, for instance one of the world’s major traffic hubs (Figure 3) and a longer-term disruption of private and commercial traffic on one or several airport as well as one of its major rivers could have significant economic, geopolitical and societal consequences. Many people (Figure 4) and many major infrastructure elements (Figure 5) could be affected.

Figure 4. Current population densities
in Europe with the Laacher See volcano
marked in the region’s centre (Source: ESRI).
My own work began with an interest in what happened in the past; the results of this work, however, have made me wonder about the implications of this – and many other archaeologists engaged with similar research – for public and ethical engagement. Can – must? – we use such joint geological and archaeological research to tell effective stories that contribute to risk reduction and resilience in Europe and elsewhere? The term catastrophe derives from the Ancient Greek "καταστροφή", and according the Oxford English Dictionary ( refers to both "an event causing great and usually sudden damage or suffering; a disaster" – its catastrophist meaning – but in a more ancient meaning it also refers to "the denouement of a drama", its turning point. Recently, such well-told narratives have been published, for instance, Gillian D'Arcy Wood's (2014) Tambora: The Eruption That Changed the World or Alexandra Witze and Jeff Kanipe's (2014) Island on Fire account of the Laki eruption pick up individual case studies, whilst Clive Oppenheimer's (2011) Eruptions that shook the world presents a wide-ranging "tour de force" overview of different events. Interestingly, the Laki case now is being used as the baseline for scenario planning in the UK. The other events, despite their relevance, are only being considered as "worst cases" in the popular media or in science fiction. A perspective informed by the Geoethical Promise would suggest that we could use these many cases more systematically both for debating issues of resilience and vulnerability and in our evidence-based engagement with policy-makers.

Figure 5. The location of power plants in Europe and the currently known distribution of Laacher See fallout. Stippled lines mark the proximal, medial, distal and ultra-distal hazard zones (Redrawn from