Tales from the (manus)crypt: Volcanic video games

An image that is slightly pixelated like a video game of a person in a protective suit standing at the edge of a lava-filled crater, with the words Volcano Simulator above them.

One of the scariest things for scientists is watching entertainment media portray your field of study inaccurately—the horror! Flood resilience officer and social volcanologist Jazmin Scarlett turned her hobby of playing video games into a paper discussing the depictions of volcanic hazards in games such as Pokémon, LEGO DC Super Villains, and Shadow of the Tomb Raider. The typical video game volcano nearly always has molten lava, but would these games be even more fun to play if they incorporated fissure eruptions, pyroclastic flows, and the dangerous effects of ash and toxic gasses? Jazmin talked with us about her views on natural disasters in fiction media, what scares her about volcanoes, and why she left volcanology to work on flood resilience with the UK’s Environment Agency.

This episode was produced by Katrina Jackson and mixed by Collin Warren. Art by Jace Steiner.


Shane Hanlon:                 Hi, Vicky.

Vicky Thompson:            Hi, Shane.

Shane Hanlon:                 Are you a gamer? I think I know the answer to this, but I wanted to ask, “What’s your experience with video games?”

Vicky Thompson:            Okay, so mostly I always refuse to play video games. I’m not a gamer, and it falls in line with my, “I don’t like to do things in front of people that I don’t know how to do.” So whenever the opportunity was presented, like, “Here, play this game in a room full of other people that are playing games-”

Shane Hanlon:                 Oh, I see.

Vicky Thompson:            … I’m like, “No, thank you.”

Shane Hanlon:                 For me, the video-

Vicky Thompson:            Because-

Shane Hanlon:                 … experience has been very solitary, but I understand your first introduction to the group.

Vicky Thompson:            Yeah. So in college or something, somebody… So I would refuse to do it because I don’t want anybody watching me fail at a video game, because I’m weird like that. But, for a time, I had a DS, a Nintendo DS.

Shane Hanlon:                 Oh, yeah. I remember that.

Vicky Thompson:            Yeah. And I would play Professor Layton puzzle games.

Shane Hanlon:                 Okay.

Vicky Thompson:            Is that how you say it? Professor Layton. That’s how it’s spelled.

Shane Hanlon:                 Yeah, I don’t know. I know what you’re talking about, but I don’t I’ve ever said it aloud.

Vicky Thompson:            Old timey. There were a lot of trains and he had a top hat.

Shane Hanlon:                 A lot of trains.

Vicky Thompson:            Yeah.

Shane Hanlon:                 So I assume you haven’t played any, then, scary video games of any sort?

Vicky Thompson:            No. Uh-huh.

Shane Hanlon:                 Oh, okay.

Vicky Thompson:            I don’t like scary things. Why would I… Well, aside from having to play video games in front of people, that’s scary. No. No purposefully scary games.

Shane Hanlon:                 That’s totally fair. I like video games. I am not what one would call a gamer by any means. I play-

Vicky Thompson:            Capital G gamer.

Shane Hanlon:                 Yeah, I play in spurts, honestly. But I don’t know if I’ve ever played any really scary games. Ones I can think of are The Last of Us, which is now this big HBO series. Resident Evil was a really big one too. And again, I know about these games. I don’t think I’ve ever played it. I did play Castlevania, which was kind of scary.

Vicky Thompson:            Ooh.

Shane Hanlon:                 Oh, have you ever heard of or ever played… Well, I guess an answer is [inaudible 00:02:09]-

Vicky Thompson:            No.

Shane Hanlon:                 … played Wolfenstein 3D.

Vicky Thompson:            No, that sounds ridiculous.

Shane Hanlon:                 Oh my God.

Vicky Thompson:            What’s that?

Shane Hanlon:                 It’s absolute ridiculous. I’m not going to dig too much into the premise, but it’s a first person game. It’s pretty old. It’s a little scary. You are looking out onto this… There’s a lot of stuff. Anyways, but one of the main villains of the game, you’re going through this underground bunker system. There’s all these doors, and the game, this villain appears. You open a door and it’s a really hard villain and they usually-

Vicky Thompson:            Like hard to beat?

Shane Hanlon:                 … dispose of you because-

Vicky Thompson:            Oh.

Shane Hanlon:                 … it’s a first person game. But the villain just yells, “guten Tag,” good day in German, before just completely messing your day up. And I remember being, frankly, probably far too young and playing this game for the first time. And this door opened and it was a computer game, and I probably just flipped my keyboard up or threw my mouse at the screen. I just imagined being just absolutely terrified and screaming and probably falling off my chair.

Vicky Thompson:            Like a jump scare video.

Shane Hanlon:                 Oh my gosh. Before that was a thing. Yeah, this is the original jump scare. Evidently it has stuck with me for years to come.

Vicky Thompson:            Yeah, your mom’s probably never letting you live down throwing your remote through the TV.

Shane Hanlon:                 Science is fascinating, but don’t just take my word for it. Join us as we hear stories from scientists for everyone. I’m Shane Hanlon.

Vicky Thompson:            And I’m Vicky Thompson.

Shane Hanlon:                 And this is Third Pod from the Sun. All right, Vicky. So I didn’t bring you here today to talk about Wolfenstein, which was fun, but interesting, though it did really bring back some fond memories of mine.

Vicky Thompson:            Of being the most scared.

Shane Hanlon:                 Yeah. It’s a little weird to frame it that way, but also maybe, but before we dig down into this rabbit hole too far, let’s bring in producer Katrina Jackson to help us out, to help us explain what we’re talking about today. So hi, Katrina.

Katrina Jackson:              Hi, Shane.

Shane Hanlon:                 Have you played a lot of video games? Are you a gamer per se?

Katrina Jackson:              I wouldn’t really call myself much of a gamer, at least for console games. I’ve played various computer games, mostly adventure games. I’ve played one or two of the Siberia games or a couple of the Monkey Island games. I played a lot of the Nancy Drew games. There’s 33 of them. I’ve played all of them multiple times.

Shane Hanlon:                 There’s 33 of them?

Katrina Jackson:              Yes.

Vicky Thompson:            Oh my gosh.

Katrina Jackson:              They’re all [inaudible 00:05:05].

Shane Hanlon:                 Oh my gosh. I haven’t done anything like that. The only thing, I was trying to think of for this, I played Mist. Do you remember Mist? The computer game Mist from, oh, I’d say… How old am I? 30… 25 years ago. It was the first computer game I ever played. Well, first on a PC. I guess we played… Oh my goodness. Is Oregon Trail an educational game? It teaches you things.

Katrina Jackson:              Yeah. So I’ve played various educational games too, like the Oregon Trail, the Yukon Trail, the JumpStart series, Carmen Sandiego. I think I’ve played Mist.

Vicky Thompson:            Whoa.

Shane Hanlon:                 Carmen Sandiego is a good one too.

Katrina Jackson:              Yeah.

Shane Hanlon:                 Oh, I really love this. This whole episode’s just going to be us running through different games.

Vicky Thompson:            Games of our youths.

Shane Hanlon:                 Yeah.

Katrina Jackson:              Do you feel like you’ve learned anything from games outside of the traditionally educational sorts of games?

Shane Hanlon:                 Maybe. So myself, I’m not necessarily a gamer, but I do play things here or there. I spent a lot of time most recently playing… I have a Switch, the Nintendo console, and had a lot of time playing the most recent Legend of Zelda games. So there’s a couple of them now, and frankly, they’re big open world things, and I’m pretty sure I find myself thinking more there than I do, frankly, doing a lot of other things in my life.

Vicky Thompson:            All right, guys. So back on track. I’m guessing this has something to do with an interview for today’s episode?

Katrina Jackson:              Yeah. So I talked with Dr. Jazmin Scarlett over in the UK, and she’s currently a flood resilience officer for their environment agency. But before that, she was a social volcanologist studying the interactions between volcanoes and people. And she actually co-authored a whole paper on the depiction of volcanoes and video games. Oh, that’s really cool. Let’s hear about it.

Dr. Jazmin Scar…:           My name is Dr. Jazmin Scarlett, and I am a flood resilience officer. So it kind of just happened because me and my co-author, Ed, we love playing video games. We’ve been playing them for majority of our lives. And for me, it started off with I was playing Spiro the Dragon, the Reunited Trilogy. So revamped from the original PlayStation 1 version in the ’90s. And I was just running around in a level with some lava falls in it, and I actually stopped and just looked at them and thought, “Oh, they don’t look quite right. They don’t look like what we would see in reality.” So that turned into me just going through all three of the games and looking at the volcanology in them, and then I wrote it up on my blog post.

                                           It wasn’t for anyone in particular. It was just for myself. Like, “This is what I found. Was rather interesting. Here you go, world.” And then Ed, he really liked that blog post. He’s like, “Hey, can I do this for Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild? And I was like, “Go ahead. Please, please do.” But then we decided there’s an annual conference over here in the UK with the Volcanic and Magmatic Studies Group. They host a annual conference every January, and Ed has a brilliant idea of, “Shall we just present this as research at the conference?” So we created the conference poster and we also brought on Nintendo Switches along for people to play while we talk about the poster.

                                           So we both had Breath of the Wild, so we let people have a go and run around the volcanic landscape and around Death Mountain in the game. And it was remarkable getting senior professors who have never touched a console in their lives having a go and to see how fun they actually… They were like, “Oh, this is actually quite fun.” They’re like, “Yeah, I can see some stuff.” I was like, “Yeah. It’s really cool.” So then from that, people at the conference were like, “You should write a paper on this.” So we were like, “Sure, why not?” So then we just spent over the summer writing a paper on it and then we published and it was published in February the following year.

Katrina Jackson:              Yeah. So what are some of the games that you looked at and how were volcanoes part of their plots or part of the gameplay?

Dr. Jazmin Scar…:           So we actually reviewed quite a few of the Pokemon games. So Ed is a big Pokemon fan, Pokémon Red and Blue as well, so Cinnabar Island. And then once you go to Pokemon Gold, Silver, you can revisit Cinnabar Island, and actually there’s changes between the games. So we talked about that in terms of, “Actually this was depicted in one time when it hadn’t erupted, and then in the Pokemon Silver and Gold games, it had erupted, so what was the impact of that?” There’s a region where there is ash falling, so we talked about not the accuracy of a child hiding in the ash to jump out of view and then start Pokemon battles. That’s not really good, is it? They don’t have protection. Where’s their face mask? Where’s their eye… Why are they not covering up the sleeves? Stuff like that.

                                           I reviewed Lego Marvel Super Heroes, and then Lego Marvel DC Super-Villains. Sounds crazy, but there’s actually volcanoes in them, and of course, is Lego, but with the volcanoes in those games, it’s more of a background feature. And of course, there are some levels where it’s an obstacle to overcome and try not to break your Lego character. One accurate thing I found in that was in the Lego DC Super-Villains game, the lava texture on top was actually quite accurate. It shows the ropy pahoehoe lava. So it’s basically what happens is that when the top of the lava cools, it forms a crust, but then to what makes it [inaudible 00:11:32] pahoehoe is that it’s still flowing fast underneath just that crust layer. And that basically pushes the crust layer and it forms is these really lovely ropy features on top of it. That was actually quite accurate. I was quite impressed for a Lego game.

                                           Ed reviewed Monster Hunter and in Monster Hunter, in all the games, there’s been 20 games, there’s so many of them, but the ones we reviewed, there’s always some sort of volcano area, volcanic area, and it’s essentially there’s monsters running around and you’ve got to hunt down the monsters. Most of these games we looked at, it’s more of a background feature. It’s not really much you can interact with. So if you took a look at the background, you see a really peaky stratovolcano and it’s ejecting ash and whatnot. One thing definitely common for the games we did find is that the stratovolcanoes, they’re too peaky. They’re really too steep. In reality, they’ll be too unstable. They would collapse really because there isn’t much holding them together if they were really, really peaky.

                                           One I reviewed was Tomb Raider, Shadow of the Tomb Raider. I was quite impressed because this is the only game that had an example of a lahar. So a lahar is a volcanic mudflow, and it actually did pretty good job and lahars, they can occur before, during, and after an eruption. So this particular lahar in this game happened during the eruption. And lahar, essentially they’re a slurry mixture of water, debris, volcanic material, anything they can pick up, and they have quite big bulldozing power and quite big erosion power because of all that sediment in it. And yet, it was quite accurate. The sequence was try to not drown in this lahar, which is, in reality, quite difficult to do because they are very fast things. They usually occur… It’s similar to flash flooding. They can come out nowhere, but that was definitely the most accurate. It’s the only example, but it was done pretty well and has not seen that since. But I encourage game developers to do that more.

Shane Hanlon:                 So I probably know the answer to this already, but I don’t want to make assumptions. Vicky, have you ever played any of these games that Jazmin was talking about or any games with a volcano in it?

Vicky Thompson:            Oh. Games with a volcano. No, I played a Pokemon card game last night-

Shane Hanlon:                 Oh.

Vicky Thompson:            … actually.

Shane Hanlon:                 Wait, literally last night?

Vicky Thompson:            Literally last night, because it’s a McDonald’s prize right now.

Shane Hanlon:                 Really?

Vicky Thompson:            Yes.

Shane Hanlon:                 Did you get the Happy Meal or was this for your daughter?

Vicky Thompson:            No, Olivia did, and it was just matching number. Anyway, it’s very fun. But no, no video games and I can’t think of anything with a volcano.

Shane Hanlon:                 Yeah, I hadn’t played any of these games that Jazmin mentioned, and I was racking my brain. I’m positive that in one of these few, again, big open world games, I’ve played something with a volcano in it, but I couldn’t bring anything to mind. What about you, Katrina?

Katrina Jackson:              I as well haven’t played any of the games that Jazmin was talking about, but in the Nancy Drew computer games, I think there were two that I recall that had volcanoes.

Vicky Thompson:            Wow.

Katrina Jackson:              Of the 30 some?

                                           Yeah, out of the 33. One was set in Hawaii and there weren’t volcanoes throughout the game, but at the very end of the game, Nancy and the Hardy Boys, they had to escape the villain by jumping across rocks that were appearing and disappearing in the lava, which isn’t super realistic, but it’s a standard game type of puzzle. But the other one I thought was even more unrealistic because it’s set at a museum in Greece where they’re putting on a play about the mythological underworld, and they had these incredibly detailed stage sets, including one that had actual lava where Nancy could fall in and die.

Shane Hanlon:                 At the museum?

Katrina Jackson:              At the museum. They had a basement level that had all these rotating stage sets that would come up for the play that they were going to produce, and I’ve done a lot of community theater. We’ve never had any actual molten lava stage.

Shane Hanlon:                 I’ve got to say, I’m pretty fascinated about these Nancy Drew games. I might do some investigating when we get [inaudible 00:16:23]-

Katrina Jackson:              Oh yeah, please do.

Shane Hanlon:                 … the call here.

Vicky Thompson:            Especially if the Hardy boys are involved.

Shane Hanlon:                 There you go.

Vicky Thompson:            That’s fun.

Shane Hanlon:                 Yes, the Hardy Boys are in a few of them.

Vicky Thompson:            So aside from lava on stage, live lava, what are some more things that Jazmin found out about how volcanoes are depicted in video games?

Dr. Jazmin Scar…:           Every game, even games now that I play, they have lava falls. In reality, they are quite rare. They do occur. So of course, for example, Kīlauea, Etna’s produced them recently. These games, they make it seem like they happen every time, which in reality they don’t. Lava bombs, really big lava bombs, obviously you can get lava bombs and it can be pretty big, but they don’t fall as far away from the volcano because of the mass, and of course, being dragged down by gravity and how far they could fall. Ash always does pop up, but it’s not the correct particle effect.

                                           There was actually example in Shadow of the Tomb Raider in DLC, additional content, where it’s a different volcano that’s erupted and you do actually get… If you leave Lara idle, she does actually put her hand over her mouth and starts coughing. And I was like, “Good. That’s what would happen in reality, but you need to make sure you cover yourself up.” She’s not covered up appropriately. She’s like, “Right, this volcano’s erupting. I’m going to go in and go hunt for treasure.” I can’t even remember what it was about, but you need the proper protection. That’s definitely my gripe, I think. I think that’s just such a me thing. It’s like, “No, where’s your protection?”

Katrina Jackson:              I imagine a lot of these games have a lot of hours of gameplay, maybe dozens of hours. People are spending a long time in these environments, and like you said, most people aren’t seeing volcanoes in their real life, especially actively erupting volcanoes. So how much do you think they are absorbing from these video games about their perception of what volcanoes are and how they act?

Dr. Jazmin Scar…:           Hmm. So that’s an ongoing process between me and Ed. Well, more Ed now, because I have left academia now, but that’s something we want to try and figure out in terms of, “Okay, so what do people learn from playing these games?” We do know from research out there that people do learn and pick up things just as they subconsciously play the games. So it is possible, but we just don’t know the numbers yet and hopefully we’ll figure it out one day.

Katrina Jackson:              I was reading in your paper that there’s some aspects of volcanoes that definitely weren’t really represented in the games you’re looking at, like pyroclastic flows or as you were talking about the effects of the ash and the volcanic gases. Why do you think those ones aren’t shown as much in the video games?

Dr. Jazmin Scar…:           I’m not sure, if I’m honest. I do think it has part to do with just the vision of the design team and those that are creating the environments in the games. They probably think that it’s not really important. As long as it’s featured, it doesn’t matter if we get it right or not. As long as it kind of resembles a volcano, they don’t need to think about the nitty-gritty stuff because volcanoes, they do produce a multitude of hazards, and people that are not in volcanology or have an understanding of volcanoes, they won’t know that. They won’t know that volcanic gas is actually classified as a volcanic hazard, and it might come with the volcanic ash, the pyroclastic flows, it might be separate. Of course, we do have examples out there where the volcanic gases has been the only hazards produced.

                                           So if you think about what happened in Cameroon in the ’90s, for example, with the carbon dioxide poisoning, that was by itself, but that was from the volcano. So it might be that, because the volcanic hazards, they do have complex interactions and some do just have them buy themselves and don’t have any others. Some happen and then it cascades into another hazard. So these sort of things, and it could be external influence as well. So for example, some lahars are produced from heavy rainfall or from a hurricane or a cyclone, and that’s happened before in the past. So it really is probably just a bit too much. They obviously want to try and just simplify things, which makes sense.

Katrina Jackson:              Are there any underutilized aspects of volcanoes or the natural disasters that you feel could make for good stories or good gameplay?

Dr. Jazmin Scar…:           Fissure eruptions. So fissure eruptions are from shield volcanoes. We have very recent examples of fissure eruptions. We have in Iceland and in Hawaii and elsewhere. Obviously those are the main two classical ones. So I think that’s underutilized. So fissure eruptions and shield volcanoes, they need to be used more, and they can be just as dangerous if not even worse, because sometimes you wouldn’t actually know where they’re going to start. Because with the fissure eruptions, it can be away from the actual crater and it could be miles, kilometers… It could be so far out from the actual volcano itself where these fissure eruptions happen. So that would add an extra element of a challenge, I would think, in the game. And gamers love challenges, so why not throw a fissure eruption in there just every once in a while? That’d be great.

Katrina Jackson:              Shane, so what would you think of a video game that had more realistic aspects of volcanoes, like fissure eruptions far from the crater, or pyroclastic flows or lahar types of mud flows that Jazmin was talking about? Or the dangerous effects of ash and volcanic gases? Would that be fun? That sounds terrifying.

Shane Hanlon:                 Yeah. Yes. No. Well, no.

Katrina Jackson:              Yeah.

Shane Hanlon:                 Okay, here’s the thing. Well, from a realistic perspective, if it could be done in a way that was still super entertaining, yes, sure, make it incredibly realistic. But for me personally, and maybe this is bad Shane scientist, Shane bad scientist, I’m not the type of person who gets mad at things like sci-fi movies for being unrealistic. I’m just in it for the fun. But sure, if there’s a way to increase realism while also keeping the entertainment factor, yes, that’s great. Why not both?

Katrina Jackson:              And I think there are definitely a lot of aspects to volcanoes that could make for some entertaining gameplay. And in general, I do think there’s a lot of room for story creators to be inspired by real science and that being familiar with the real science has the potential to make your stories a lot richer and more interesting.

Shane Hanlon:                 Yeah. And I wonder what Jazmin’s thoughts are on volcanoes in other forms of media.

Katrina Jackson:              Outside of video games, are there any other works of fiction where you’ve seen particularly good portrayals of natural disasters or particularly bad portrayals?

Dr. Jazmin Scar…:           So it was last year now, but it’s still on my mind because it’s so great, but the Broken Earth trilogy by N. K. Jemisin. Jemisin?

Katrina Jackson:              Yes, I have read it. Yes.

Dr. Jazmin Scar…:           It’s so good, isn’t it? It’s so good. Just the geology being the basis of the magic, that blows my mind. And the fact that the volcanoes are… It’s done very well in terms of the fact that this larger eruption has destabilized civilization and they’ve got to figure out what to do afterwards. I’m hooked on that. I was like, “Yes.” And I have heard from a friend that actually the author did actually talk to actual volcanologists and geologists to actually get it right. So I’m like, “Perfect.”

Katrina Jackson:              Oh, good.

Dr. Jazmin Scar…:           We need more of that. We need more authors or whatever to just talk to us. We’re available. Game developers, please approach us. We’re here. We’re keen. In terms of bad depictions, in movies, pretty much every movie that’s had a volcano in it, they’ve done something wrong. Most of the time, always wrong. The best we’re ever going to get is Dante’s Peak, and of course, even Dante’s Peak didn’t do it 100% right. And it’s really disheartening. It’s like, “Come on. There are so many scientists out there. Just please, please. Just please, all of them are bad. Please just reach out to us. Please just get it just kind of right.”

                                           But obviously the problem is in reality, some of them can be pretty boring, so I get it, why they want to do it so wrong and exaggerated, because they obviously want to make it all exciting and like, “Oh, no. Are they going to survive or not?” And I’m just like… For example, every time the movie 2012 comes up and the volcanic sequence comes up, my family or my friends just turn to me, because you could see me trying so hard not to like, “This so wrong.” There needs to be an improvement in the film industry of the volcanoes and other natural hazards representation. That’d be great.

Katrina Jackson:              What would be your ideal movie that had volcanoes? If it were up to you, what would the story be and how would the natural disasters be depicted in a cool way that was accurate, but entertaining?

Dr. Jazmin Scar…:           Oh, well, entertaining, that’s questionable because the way I think of it, it’s like, “It’s not entertaining at all.”

Katrina Jackson:              Right.

Dr. Jazmin Scar…:           So obviously what I would do is I would show more the disaster management side of things, so how different agencies and organizations speak to one another or don’t speak to one another. And that could be a source of drama and entertainment, I guess, in terms of how wrong the communication can be. Because usually, if the communication doesn’t work, that’s usually when disaster happens. That’s usually when people get lost or lose their lives, if the communication is not on point. So that could be a thriller, I guess, in that sense, in the suspension.

Katrina Jackson:              Yeah. The human side of things is always where drama happens.

Dr. Jazmin Scar…:           Yeah, exactly. We have that suspension there. I would show, I suppose, more accurate representation if you do wear the correct protection and what would happen if you don’t wear the correct protection. I think that would be good too. And then I guess you can add more of a horror element to that. So what would happen if you inhaled ash? Because in reality, you would just have to go to hospital for… I can’t remember. If you have respiratory problems, you have to go to the hospital, whatnot, especially if you have asthma. If you inhale too much [inaudible 00:28:18], like sulphur dioxide, for example, you would obviously have to go to the hospital as well because of the poisoning, whatnot. Add an horror element to it instead. In reality, my film would be really boring, but it’d be highly accurate.

                                           And I think actually more the social and human element of it is where you would get the entertainment and the drama, I think, because volcanoes, they do what they do, and most of the time now around the world, it’s relatively predictable where these hazards are going to go. We don’t know when, most of the time, but we know where because we have hazard maps, we have past research, we have constant monitoring, whatnot. So in terms of that, that’s nailed down. That can be pretty accurate, but you can run away with the human element to it because that, at the end of the day, is what causes disasters. And that’s with any hazards. It’s not just volcanoes. Because we know about how they work, but if the communication’s broken down, if people are not where they’re supposed to be, that’s usually where things go wrong. So don’t see my movie. It’ll do terrible.

Shane Hanlon:                 Oh, so she mentioned adding a horror element to natural disaster movies. That could be fun.

Vicky Thompson:            Yeah, I don’t usually think of volcanoes as being in the horror genre per se, though, of course, volcanic eruptions and other natural disasters can be pretty scary.

Katrina Jackson:              Yeah, I think basically the genre of horror is usually dealing more with supernatural horrors rather than the natural type of horrors, wouldn’t you say?

Shane Hanlon:                 Yeah. Frankly, I think if it’s scary, it counts. I think certain documentarians have made a career of telling true things in frankly really scary ways.

Katrina Jackson:              Mm-hmm.

Vicky Thompson:            Regardless, I imagine volcanologists themselves probably wouldn’t describe volcanoes as horror or scary, right?

Katrina Jackson:              Well, Jazmin, she did actually use the word scary several times when she was talking with me about volcanoes.

Dr. Jazmin Scar…:           I don’t know if this is just me, but just in general, I find volcanoes scary, just because they’re just always there. We don’t know what’s going on underneath the surface, and I think that scares me. I think that’s what got me into volcanology in general. I want to know this very unknowable, scary thing. I want to know what makes it tick. I wish we were at a point of volcanology where we could have a met office that could just track a hurricane and know exactly when it’s going to make hit land or not. I wish we had that, but we just don’t. And that scares me, I think, the fact that we have to rely so much on computers, but as well as ourselves to make the call and be like, “Okay, is this volcano going to erupt or not?” Sometimes it literally is down to a senior person who is monitoring this volcano to decide to tell the relevant authorities, “You need to call an evacuation now.” I think that scares me, the fact that a lot of it is still on us to try and get it right.

Katrina Jackson:              Yeah, that’s an interesting way to think about it, and you said that’s what got you into volcanology. So tell me more about how you got into the field.

Dr. Jazmin Scar…:           Yeah, so for my undergrad, I did geography and natural hazards. So it was a combination of human geography, physical geography, and disaster management. So that course, I was learning about all types of natural hazards. And then I reached the end of my undergrad, and essentially, I was not ready to go into the real world of work yet. So I wanted to continue studying. So I was shopping around for masters and I came across this course called volcanology and Geological Hazards. I thought, “Huh, that sounds interesting.” So I spoke to my family about it, and then my mom was like, “You should speak to your granddad, because he comes from a volcanic island, the Caribbean,” and I was 21 years old and I had no clue about this. I just thought he came from a town called Redding and had a funny accent. That’s all. I didn’t know where he was from.

                                           So I spoke to my granddad and he was like, “Yeah, it was this amazing place in the Caribbean called Saint Vincent, had this beautiful volcano called La Soufrière and it interrupted, and it was amazing. It was really brilliant, and really…” He’s a very good storyteller, my granddad, so he really put stars in my eyes. I was like, “Oh my God. I need to know more about this.” So I decided, “Yeah, I’m going to do that course.” So I did my master’s at Lancaster University and I decided to do my research dissertation on Saint Vincent and on La Soufrière in terms of people’s risk perceptions of the volcano. And that’s probably where the fear instilled in me with particularly La Soufrière, because my family were impacted by it, because my ancestors were impacted by it. I was like, “I need to learn more about this volcano. I need to not be scared of this volcano that my family still live with today.La Soufrière

                                           So I did the master’s project and then my course director, Hugh Tuffen, he was like, “You’re really good at this. You should consider doing a PhD.” So then I did a PhD on the same volcano, but looking more about the historical eruptions of it, because I was really fascinated about, “What did this look like in the past? How did people experience this volcano in the past?” But I feel like now I’m not as scared, because at least I have some understanding, because we’re still trying to figure out so many things about how volcanoes work and how the hazards work. But I still feel like I know enough to be like, “Okay, I kind of know what’s going on with them now. I don’t have to be scared of them anymore.” But at the same time, I can be very fearful for other people. So I’m still scared for other people that live near volcanoes.

Katrina Jackson:              I like how with the whole PhD, you now kind of understand what’s going on.

Dr. Jazmin Scar…:           Yeah, that’s the whole thing with PhDs, isn’t it? Just scratch the surface.

Katrina Jackson:              Right. So tell me about your current job as a flood resilience officer. Has your volcanology background helped at all with that job?

Dr. Jazmin Scar…:           It surprisingly has, yeah. So flood resilience officer, so it’s with a civil service department in the UK called the Environment Agency. My job is a number of things. One is community engagement. So going down to communities across the areas of responsibility that we have, talk to them and raise flood awareness, tell them about their flood risk. That’s one part of my role. Another part of my role is hydrology and telemetry. So I essentially monitor river levels in my areas of responsibilities. So I am responsible for a river catchment called the Upper Lee and it’s tributaries, so it’s quite a number of smaller rivers that flow off this large river called the Upper Lee.

                                           And so I monitor those river levels and then joint with that, I do threshold reviews. So these thresholds are for flood alerts or flood warning. So I review those thresholds and then I assist with my colleagues to maintain the flood warning service. Mainly just the background stuff. I’m not trained yet to issue floods alerts or flood warnings. However, I am being trained to next year. So another role is incident management. So an environment agency, they are naturally a category one responder for any environmental incidents. So along with the police, the fire and ambulance service, we would be there if there is flooding or if there is a wildfire, if there’s an industrial fire.

                                           Almost everybody in Environment Agency has one or more incident roles. So I have an incident activated role called an incident support officer. Next year, I’ll be trained as a flood warning duty officer, and this one, you’re on a rota. It’s usually a week, week on, week off rota. And this is where I would be monitoring the river levels more closely, and then working with my colleagues, I would be there in making decisions, “Do we need to initiate a flood alert or flood warning or severe flood warning?” I really enjoy it, and with that disaster management side of stuff in terms of volcanology, it’s literally front and center in terms of bringing that knowledge in.

Vicky Thompson:            That’s so interesting that Jazmin didn’t learn about her grandpa being from a volcanic Caribbean island until she started studying volcanology herself.

Katrina Jackson:              Yeah, I can definitely see why Jazmin got into the more human side of volcanology once she learned about her own family’s connections to volcanoes.

Shane Hanlon:                 I also think it’s really cool that Jazmin’s academic background in volcanology is so useful now that she’s doing something pretty different with all the flood warning stuff at the environmental agency. I personally can relate to having a scientific background in something and doing something completely different, but it being at least relatively helpful. Did she say why she switched paths and left volcanology?

Katrina Jackson:              Yes, Jazmin did talk about that.

Dr. Jazmin Scar…:           I left because I couldn’t handle the short-term contracts, essentially. I couldn’t handle the short-term contracts and keep applying for jobs and just how competitive it is. It was not for me. I couldn’t keep up. And some people can make it work, but me, I live by myself and obviously I have to financially support myself. So I was like, “I can’t keep doing these short-term contracts because that’s not financially stable at all.” That’s the main challenge. And the academia itself, I enjoyed it. I really enjoyed it. The main challenges was working with my physical disability. So I have a physical disability and the main thing that came up was with chronic fatigue, I could not do all the hours that other people do in academia. I just couldn’t because I would just be tired at the end of the day, and I think as well, just I suppose just the perception of that toxic environment. I was fortunate that I didn’t experience that much.

                                           I had microaggressions, but that happens when you have the skin color like mine. But that didn’t phase me as much as it did of my physical disability. But physical disability was the main thing, and then of course, just the short term contracts. It’s really hard to get a permanent job at the moment, particularly in the UK, particularly in the UK volcanology community at the moment. Because most of the time, you would have to go to another country, and for me, I can’t be that far away from my family. I just can’t. I would get so homesick, so I would have to come back. So I was like, “It’s not for me.” So I had to make that call and make that choice be like, “I need to leave and I need to find a permanent job.” Corporate working, I have found it does suit me better. Have set hours, I know my boundaries, my team knows my boundaries, I know their boundaries. There is much better separation between work-life balance. That’s very important in the Environment Agency and corporate world. And I don’t really see myself going back to academia anytime soon, probably never, to be honest.

Vicky Thompson:            Can you see yourself ever going back to academia, Shane?

Shane Hanlon:                 No. I’ve thought about this.

Vicky Thompson:            Hard no.

Shane Hanlon:                 Well, I’ve thought about this a lot. Seriously, a lot. And I go and teach as part of academia and I take class. I’m still tangentially connected to it, and I definitely love some aspects of academia, but honestly, I also love work-life balance and having the option to do extracurriculars versus that being a requirement of my job. I get both sides. I have many friends and colleagues in academia and not, but for me, not a thing.

Katrina Jackson:              Well, presumably now you have more time to play video games, right?

Shane Hanlon:                 Okay. So Vicky, you might’ve heard this story before, but I don’t know if I’ve ever actually aired this out there. So when the lockdown for COVID back in March of 2020 started, we all coped in our own ways. And for me, I don’t know why, but for whatever reason, my daily routine turned into, outside of the whole work from home thing, every morning I would wake up and I would eat Reese’s Cocoa Puffs for six months every single morning. And every evening, I’d eat dinner, whatever. I’d fix myself a drink, and then I would play Legend of Zelda. Literally six months, every single day, this was my routine. I still play video games. I’m not a gamer per se, like I said before, but I had a lot of time then. Maybe I have some game life balance now.

Katrina Jackson:              Right.

Vicky Thompson:            Game life balance.

Katrina Jackson:              Maybe a more balanced lifestyle.

Shane Hanlon:                 Yeah. So with that, let’s end it there, and that is all from Third Pod from The Sun.

Vicky Thompson:            Thanks so much to Katrina for bringing us this story and to Jazmin for sharing her work with us.

Shane Hanlon:                 This episode was produced by Katrina with audio engineering from Colin Warren and artwork by Jay Steiner.

Vicky Thompson:            We’d love to hear your thoughts on the podcast, so please rate and review us, and you can find new episodes on your favorite podcasting app or at thirdpodfromthesun.com.

Shane Hanlon:                 Thanks all, and we’ll see you next week.

Vicky Thompson:            Yeah, regardless, I can imagine [inaudible 00:43:50]… Why can’t I talk?

Shane Hanlon:                 It’s Monday.

Vicky Thompson:            That’s nice. That’s a nice way to say it. Regardless, I imagine volcanologists find themselves… Something’s really wrong with me today. Regardless, I imagine volcanologists themselves probably wouldn’t describe [inaudible 00:44:13]… Literally, what is happening?

Katrina Jackson:              That’s what editing is for.

Vicky Thompson:            Thank God.


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