In 1812, the island of St. Vincent in the Caribbean was populated by about 200 indigenous Caribs, about 1000 White people, mostly colonizers from Britain, and over 24,000 enslaved people, mostly from Africa. The British colonizers owned plantations that produced sugar cane in the rich soils on the flanks of the volcano that formed the island, La Soufrière. Starting on April 27 that year, La Soufrière began erupting, spewing black ash into the atmosphere and sending hot, deadly pyroclastic flows down its flanks and over the sugar plantations. The eruption only killed about 50 people, but many of the plantations were heavily damaged and lost their crops. The indigenous Kalinago people mostly emigrated to neighboring Trinidad Island. But government loans encouraged plantation owners to recover and purchase more land around the volcano, bringing in yet more enslaved people, and paying little attention to reducing their risks from future eruptions.
When La Soufrière Volcano erupted again in 1902, more than 1600 people died in sugar plantations on the windward slope of the volcano (see Figure 1).
La Soufrière has since erupted several more times, making it the most active volcano in the Caribbean (Pyle et al., 2018). Two hundred years after that 1812 eruption, as she was finishing her undergraduate degree in geography and natural hazards at Coventry University in England, Jazmin Scarlett (see Figure 2) discovered that her grandfather had grown up on St. Vincent Island in the shadow of La Soufrière.
My mum said, 'you should talk to your grandad, he's from a volcanic island and he has stories about the volcano.' I was 21 and I didn’t know! My grandad told me all these fascinating stories about where he grew up on St Vincent and the Grenadines. I was captivated to hear about the volcano – La Soufrière – and its last eruption in 1979. It made me want to find ways to help people who live with the volcano, particularly as we still have family living over there.Jazmin Scarlett, The Royal Society
She learned about her grandfather and family ties to St. Vincent just as she was looking into graduate programs. Driven by these personal discoveries, she wanted to study the social science aspects of living near volcanoes and to understand how communities felt about the risks. She found a way to do so, overcoming more than a few challenges along the way.
A childhood illness
Jazmin was born in 1991 in Luton. At two years old, Jazmin was diagnosed with juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA), a condition in which the body’s immune system attacks normal cells and tissues and produces joint inflammation and pain. The causes are unknown. In Jazmin’s case, she spent months of her toddler years in London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital due to severe pain and impaired movement.
As she grew up, Jazmin endured rounds of treatment with physiotherapy, hydrotherapy, and injections of an immune-suppressing drug (methotrexate) to overcome the effects of inflammation. She reports that the disability made her “quite self-aware,” in terms of knowing that she was different and requiring special forms of care. She reflects, "On the worst days I wouldn’t be able to get up. I was in severe pain and needed help to do anything, like eat or go to the bathroom. My joints would be swollen and hot, hard to move." At about age 13, she went to a weekend retreat with the Children’s Chronic Arthritis Association (CCAA), where she met other kids with JIA who shared her experiences and became friends.
Fortunately, Jazmin’s arthritic flareups decreased as she became a young adult, and she could eventually stop the methotrexate injections. However, she continued to experience chronic fatigue from the JIA. She learned to take care of her health with extra rest and sleep.
Jazmin's love for geography
Her health made school challenging. Looking back, Jazmin says, "I was just exhausted and frustrated all the time, but I really did enjoy geography and the sciences. My family and my teachers recognized that and encouraged me to pursue those subjects." She thought about being a meteorologist to study hurricanes and other hazards of weather but was daunted by the physics and math it required. However, her mom, who Jazmin describes as “a strong, resilient woman” who “saved so many children” through her work as a social worker, inspired Jazmin to prevail in the sciences (Geoscience for the Future, 2021). Jazmin earned an A level in geography, which in the UK system indicates that she achieved an advanced level by the time she finished high school, like excelling in an AP course in the U.S. In the UK, “geography” encompasses meteorology (the study of the atmosphere and weather) and geology. Jazmin enrolled at Coventry University for a bachelor’s degree in Geography and Natural Hazards. While these sciences traditionally focus on Earth’s natural physical processes, Jazmin was motivated to explore the human side after taking a course in community resilience.
Still, as she considered advanced education, she wondered whether her health would allow her to pursue her interests.
Geography involves fieldwork, so would I actually be able to keep up with it? Since I like all science, I could just go and do a chemistry degree that’s mostly sitting down. But arthritis is a condition I live with, and I just had to find ways around it, to do what I want to do.Jazmin Scarlett, The Royal Society
The critical conversation with her grandfather, which made her wonder how the communities on St. Vincent could better withstand future eruptions, came as she was considering graduate school. When Jazmin was looking into graduate programs, she found out that Lancaster University had a female volcanologist, Jenny Gilbert, who was researching volcanic processes in Japan, Chile, and Iceland. Jazmin pursed her master’s work there, focusing on risk perceptions of people living in the vicinity of La Soufrière.
Jazmin continued her research on La Soufrière as a PhD student in Earth Science at the University of Hull, building on her master’s work. Mentored by Professor of Environmental History Greg Bankoff and Volcanologist Rebecca Williams, Jazmin specialized in historical and social volcanology. Jazmin focused on the historical interactions between humans and La Soufrière Volcano in terms of “risk, vulnerability, resilience, perceptions, culture, heritage, and education” (European Geosciences Union, 2020).
For her PhD work, Jazmin reconstructed the effects of the 1812 eruption of La Soufrière Volcano, tracing the colonial legacy of life on St. Vincent and looking at how people were differentially affected by the volcano depending on their social status. She found that historical accounts from that period were limited to the perspectives of male plantation owners, with “virtually no accounts from any women, children, enslaved person, or native people.” As a person of color with family roots in St. Vincent, Jazmin became a voice for decolonializing the telling of this history. She says, “I found in many ways, those indigenous communities had a way of living with the volcano, and it was when the island became colonised that it did not respond to events as well” (Beever, 2021).
Jazmin’s graduate research culminated in 2019 in her dissertation entitled Co-existing with volcanoes: the relationships between La Soufrière and the society of St. Vincent, Lesser Antilles. Due to her dissertation work and the inspiring example she set for the next generation of earth scientists, Jazmin was awarded the prestigious President’s Award from the Geological Society of London, the first Black woman to be so honored. The award recognizes the unique and exceptional contribution of her dissertation work to understanding how the social issues around colonization and slavery shaped community responses to the eruptions of La Soufrière.
Inequitable risk is not just historic
When La Soufrière erupted again in 2021 (Smithsonian GVP, see Figure 4), residents—including some of Jazmin’s extended family—received a warning to evacuate the island. But, because of the ongoing Covid pandemic, only vaccinated people were allowed to board rescue ships; the rest had to flee in small fishing boats or by the only road leading south from the volcano, which forms the north end of the island. In the south, four thousand people crowded into government shelters, heightening the risk of spreading Covid. Despite the early warning given to residents, the eruption resulted in a humanitarian crisis of reduced food, water, and access to hygiene (Coto and Lederer, 2021).
As in the era of slavery, the impacts of the recent eruption were inequitably distributed, and more vulnerable populations on St. Vincent were more adversely affected. The kind of interdisciplinary research that Jazmin engages in can inform more comprehensive, culturally relevant, and equitable disaster management solutions. She says, “I’ve predominantly been focusing on marginalized communities and how they live with volcanoes, because they’re usually quite neglected in research” (IRIS Earthquake Science, 2021) In addition to illuminating the inequities of risk associated with volcanic hazards, Jazmin works to better understand who is and can be involved in the study of volcanic hazards and risks to communities.
In a 2022 paper, Volcanologists - who are we and where are we going?, Jazmin and seven colleagues explore equity, diversity and inclusion in their academic discipline (Kavanagh et al., 2021). They analyze the demographics of volcanology faculty positions, awards, and memberships on committees, such as men’s and women’s roles in the International Association of Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth’s Interior (IAVCEI). Looking at committee heads, general secretaries, and presidents for the organization since 1919, the study reveals a gender bias, with men holding the vast majority of leadership positions (see Figure 5).
Based on their results, they conclude that there is continued “discrimination related to ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, physical ability, and socio-economic background.” Jazmin sees a direct connection between the lack of diversity in the discipline of volcanology and the inequitable impacts of volcanic eruptions on more vulnerable populations who are under-represented in the research.
Helping people who live near volcanoes
During the 2021 eruption of La Soufrière, Jazmin was poised to help people cope. She used her social media channels to magnify the communications to communities from the National Emergency Management Organization and Seismic Research Centre, organizations that oversee keeping people informed. Jazmin said, “Even though as scientists we may not be part of the volcano observatory team, we can still help them in some way… If it can reach some people, that’s all I can hope for. I’ve been getting loads more followers from the Caribbean all of a sudden, and followers from St. Vincent have contacted me to say thank you.”(Williams and Krippner, 2019).
In addition to her social media channels, Jazmin uses communications tools hosted by geosciences organizations to spread the word about the hazards of living near volcanoes. For example, in a blog-style article, Jazmin explains what’s called the Sendai Framework (European Geosciences Union, 2020). Put in place by the United Nations in 2015 to cover a 15-year timeframe, the Framework garners commitments from member states to reduce disaster risks. As Jazmin describes it, the Framework broadly covers the multifaceted aspects of risk to include environmental, technological, and biological hazards.
But the people living in the shadows of volcanoes are the most affected stakeholders, often with historical, emotional, and family ties to the landscape. To capture the indelible relationship between geologic hazards and human communities over time, Jazmin and colleagues proposed the concept of “geocultural heritage” (Scarlett and Riede, 2019). Geocultural heritage comprises the experiences, histories, cultures, and perspectives of people in volcanic communities. Incorporating geocultural heritage may ultimately determine the effectiveness of emergency response efforts.
Volcanoes and video games
Jazmin’s commitment to spreading the word about volcanic hazards permeates another of her interests – video games. Jazmin has played video games since she was a kid, in part because her physical disabilities limited other activities. As she later became a geoscientist, Jazmin noticed that games failed to accurately depict geologic processes, yet could be a powerful venue for spreading knowledge.
When one of my favourite video games from the 90s was re-released, I was submerging myself in nostalgia, and I reached a level with lava falls… and I found myself thinking ‘this doesn’t look right- that is not how lava behaves!’Jazmin Scarlett, Geoscience for the Future, 2021
Jazmin teamed up with a colleague from Leicester University and investigated the accuracy of volcano depictions in video games (McGowan and Scarlett, 2021). They made the point that, because volcanoes appear frequently in games, sometimes depicted in substantial detail, they represent a learning opportunity. Jazmin and her colleague reviewed games and found that the visual aspects of volcanic processes like flowing lava and ash fall are often realistic, but the experiential hazards of lava burns or inhaled particulates are missing. Without these hazards portrayed, games might leave users with an unrealistic perspective that volcanic eruptions are not dangerous. Instead, they argued, realistic depictions can be used as jumping off points for students to explore volcanic hazards in an engaging way.
I’d love to set up a program to subsidize people from disadvantaged backgrounds to do volcano observatory internships- particularly for people from that country, so that one day, they could be the volcanologist, or the seismologist, at that volcano observatory.Jazmin Scarlett, Geoscience for the Future, 2021
Identifying as Black, female, disabled, and queer, Jazmin has become increasingly committed to justice, equality, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI) in science. Jazmin is passionate about helping people overcome barriers from race, gender, disability, or other factors, in science. Her presentations at geoscience events reflect her perspectives on overcoming barriers (see Figure 6).
During her service on the former Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) committee for the UK’s Volcanic and Magmatic Studies Group, Jazmin strived to foster equal opportunities within the geoscience community, making the argument that diversity in geoscience – or any science – contributes to the quality of the experience for everyone. Jazmin is heralded as one of the LGBT heroes in climate and environmental science.
Currently, Jazmin Scarlett works as a Flood Resilience Officer for the UK’s Environment Agency, which is charged with looking after the natural environments of England for both wildlife and people. Jazmin has a lot she hopes to accomplish in helping UK communities cope with hazardous, flood prone environments, applying her knowledge of community response to volcanic hazards. Her work will continue to contribute to removing barriers to people of all types becoming earth scientists.
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