Reinvigorating the global dimension of school geography

Pacific Ocean Horizon. Source: NASA;

What themes might reinvigorate the global dimension of geographical education?

How should geographical education engage with visions of the future?

These are the two concerns of this post, and they are intertwined.

The post mainly concerns geographical education, but the discipline is necessarily implicated.  It is meant as a discussion generator rather than as an academic article, so please excuse any clangers and unattributed notions!

The Geography of It All

The immediate trigger for this post is ‘The Geography of It All’, a recent article by David Lambert (2021), which poses the central question of “[W]hat does geographical study bring to the table, especially in our deliberations with young people about contemporary predicaments and existential challenges[?]”.

It is an accessible and thought-provoking piece which is open about geography’s predicament, warts and all.  So, for example, Lambert flags up geography’s physical-human divide, its involvement in ‘competing’ with history for students, and its complexity, which threatens to overwhelm the integrity of the discipline.  But he is insistent in promoting the value of geography – not just for students, but for the future of planet earth.  His concluding paragraph is worth quoting in full:

“An appropriate educational response to the human epoch needs to value geographical thinking: thinking that does not put human beings above (or even separate from) nature; that puts locales and nations into their global context; and which always seeks to understand interconnections. I believe reformed school geography, which seeks to enhance children and young people’s capabilities with regard to thinking about society and nature relationships and environmental futures, represents a profound educational response to the challenges of the human epoch.”

Lambert therefore sees global futures as integral to the future of geography.  I concur, and I offer some considerations that might inform the global dimension of ‘a reformed school geography’.

The symbiosis of History and Geography

Lambert notes how philosophers of history are increasingly recognising the role of earth systems in the story of humankind.  If the role of the ‘non-human’ is indeed becoming more salient in the discipline of history, then this raises the prospect that we might see this feed more explicitly into the school history curriculum in the years to come.  We must hope that this will see an appreciation of the importance of human/non-human interactions and planetary limits rather than a re-emergence of environmental determinism.

Just as history is coming to terms with the environment, I argue that geography should be more comfortable with temporality.  In a presentation to the recent GA Geography Teacher Educators Conference[1], I showed images of four two-page spreads from a current A Level textbook on the theme of human development.  There were a handful of maps, a smattering of tables and photographs, but no graphs showing change over time – and little recognition of trends in the text either.  This may be an extreme example, but could it be symptomatic of an underplaying of trends in some parts of the geography curriculum, particularly in global development?  Might this go some way to explaining why many students are so surprised when they are confronted with evidence for long-term improvements in a wide range of indicators of social flourishing, as presented by resources from the Gapminder Institute, Our World in Data, and so on?

Lifting our eyes up

Alongside a consideration of how much attention geographers could spend on long-term trends, it is timely to consider to who we claim to be speaking on behalf of.  Indeed, although Lambert’s article chimes with my thoughts on the subject’s global dimension, his comment that “we are browbeaten about the end of progress (when we can no longer assume our children will have ‘better’ lives than their parents)” deserves closer attention.  His use of ‘we’ and ‘our children’ appears to be made from the view of someone in the global north – and yes, from that standpoint, there has arguably been a narrowing of horizons, a questioning of progress, and a growing sense of unease, driven by inequality and widespread economic stagnation.

However, taking into account a broad sweep of socio-economic measures from a range of well-respected IGOs, and notwithstanding stubborn levels of inequality within countries, living conditions for most people in the global south have seen continual improvements over at least the past seventy years (Roser, 2018; Rosling et al, 2018), meaning that, in most respects, many global citizens are living ‘better lives’ than their parents, and many will expect their offspring to live ‘better lives’ in their turn.

Figure 1: The world is much better.  The world is awful.  The world can be much better (Roser, 2018)

Drawing students’ attention to these achievements (see, for example, Alcock, 2019a, 2019b; Standish, 2020), should not be seen as being dismissive of remaining problems, or as being ignorant of the huge challenges of the Anthropocene.  As Max Roser – the founder of Our World in Data – has written, “The world is much better.  The world is awful.  The world can be much better.  All three statements are true” (Roser, 2018; see Figure 1).  There is indeed a great opportunity for a rich and far-reaching debate to be had, not only amongst geography educators, but also between students, on the theme of ‘progress’.  This would draw on commentators who have responded critically to proponents of an ‘optimistic’ or, as Rosling would have it, a ‘possibilistic’ worldview (see, for example, Hickel, 2017; Paulsen, 2019a, 2019b; Aguilera, 2020).

A reformed school geography, I argue, should enable students to develop a more accurate and balanced evaluation of humanity’s achievements and failures over a prolonged period, and at a global scale.  Such a worldview would not be uncritical of economic and social failings or of environmental crises.  Instead, it would contextualise them.  It would not underplay young people’s anxieties about the future.  But it would embolden them to develop a sense of hope, as they would be able to draw confidence from previous successes – such as victories in human rights, reductions in child mortality, and increases in renewable energy supplies – with which to face the future.  This balanced evaluation would also assist them – and us, as teachers – to pursue our shared geographical journey to explore the challenges of the Anthropocene.

My other reflections on Lambert’s post come under three broad themes.

Three global themes

With the above comments in mind, and in response to Lambert’s provocation, what might the global element of a ‘reformed school geography’ look like?  I offer three very broad approaches.  These are rough and ready, incomplete, overlapping, and they piggyback on the ideas of many others.  Indeed, many elements are already taking place in classrooms – and remote learning environments – across the country!  My main aim is to stimulate a reaction, to help geography stay relevant, engaging and attractive, but moreover, so that it is able to be more responsive to the challenges facing the human and non-human world.

Big Picture Geographies

  • Big Picture Geography would entail an increased awareness of significant historical trends in ‘human’ geography (using data visualisations such as those on Our World in Data), accompanied by a focus on graphicacy skills.
  • It would also harness the power of ‘big picture’ narratives.  In a comment below Lambert’s piece, the historian Andreas Koerber identifies a new wave of large-scale popular historiography which he calls ‘Big History’ but whose contents are often deeply geographical (for example, Frankopan, 2015 and Diamond, 2011).   This appetite for popular narratives which explore long-term changes over space exposes a vein of curiosity which geographers should leap at the opportunity to tap into.  Geography teachers and students should take care not to be ‘prisoners of geography’ and look outside of our traditional literary domains.
  • Big Picture Geography should be informed by a decolonised approach to the subject: it should involve a wider range of perspectives, it should heed more voices, and it should acknowledge and problematise the long history of shifting power relationships.

Co-operative Geographies

  • For too long, Garrett Hardin’s ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ (1968) has been the go-to resource use theory for many geography teachers, myself included.  However, although it assumes innocent actors combining to cause large-scale problems, in its application, it heightens misanthropic prejudices and a pessimistic view of human co-operation.  It is time for a tilt towards co-operative geographies.  These would give due recognition to evidence showing the fundamental decency and collective mindedness of most humans.  Giving more saliency to Elinor Ostrom’s theories of small-scale co-operative management of common resources would not only be closer to what happens ‘on the ground’ in many cases, but it would restore some much-needed belief in humanity.  Rutger Bregman’s Humankind (2020) is another weapon in the geographer’s armoury against cynicism: he draws on a wide range of historical evidence to argue that believing in human kindness and altruism can change how we think and act.
  • An examination of different scales of co-operation would be a great geographical project, and a way to build a conceptual bridge from the local to the global.  It could draw parallels between small-scale community initiatives such as Friends groups and Green Flag projects, regional and national instances of altruistically pulling together (as shown by the high levels of adherence to social distancing rules in the Covid-19 pandemic), and international and global examples of co-operation, such as the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
  • As Elise Boulding pointed out in 1988, IGOs and NGOs may be interpreted as aspects of a co-operative global civic culture which fosters ideals of global interdependence, sustainable development and peace – but how often do we refer to them as such?  And how have geography teachers framed largely successful co-operative endeavours such as the European Union?  Generations of students grew up thinking of the EU as creators of milk lakes and butter mountains and pesky imposers of fishing quotas, rather than as engines for peace and creators of social democratic norms.  (Did Boris Johnson bribe David Waugh?)
  • A more realistic, historical, and evidence-based awareness of how humans pull together, adapt, and respond to resource challenges would also enrich secondary school geography.  A move away from the discredited theories of Thomas Malthus to a more nuanced examination of the ideas of a range of thinkers, including
  • Ester Boserup, Kate Raworth and Ruth DeFries (see, for example, DeFries, 2014) would reveal different takes on the contentious issue of population/resource management.  This might then soothe pupils’ fears of a ‘population explosion’ (which, according to one KS3 Geography video on the otherwise commendable Oak Academy, is still happening!) and instead open up a new sense of optimism for engaging with the future.

Planetary Futures

  • Reinvigorating the ‘futures dimension’ is vital in reformed secondary school geography.  The groundwork for this has been laid down by David Hicks and others since the 1990s.  The theme of the 2007 GA Conference was Future Geographies, and there is a significant bank of resources and skilled practitioners that could be drawn upon from the past thirty years or so.  Francis Hutchinson (1996) is also a source of inspiration for geographers who are keen to get a handle on how to teach a futures-orientated curriculum.  An intriguing and agenda-setting article by Hoffman et al (2021), based on action research, found that “a futuring approach to education… contributes to an enhanced sense of agency among students in dealing with wicked problems”.
  • Sitting squarely alongside futures education, but also drawing from the ideas of ‘Big Picture’ and ‘Co-operative’ geographies, a reinvigorated and evidentially grounded ‘geography of hope’ should surely play a role in the education of future geographers: this would help students to evaluate progress, believe in humanity, and then, using these insights, help them to create a better world[2].
  • Climate change deserves a special place in the curriculum.  As the ultimate global ‘wicked problem’ – and one which is not going away any time soon, it deserves a permanent, significant, and guaranteed place at the table, and it should be repeatedly visited in the classroom.  The wording in the National Curriculum is not emphatic enough.  Climate change is a touchstone environmental issue and one which the public view as being inherently geographical.  It also allows for the development a panoply of hard and soft skills, as well as providing an opportunity to feed into ‘Big Picture’ and ‘Co-operative’ geographies.  Two of the most pressing needs are firstly for students to be able to have the skills to navigate the debate about ‘who is to blame’ for climate change, and secondly to appreciate the relative impact that different strategies might have on overcoming this challenge (see, for example, Project Drawdown): what use is recycling and turning lights off, if steel and concrete production continue unhindered, and animal products remain a mainstay of so many diets?
  • Planetary futures would also provide a suitable home for Late-covid and Post-covid geographies.  The resource bank developed by Alan Parkinson (2020) is a treasure trove for educators which could be used to help conceive of a post-covid world.  Applying some of the insights to other infectious diseases would help to bring up discussions in health geography which until now may, for many of our students, have been muted owing largely to the fact that diseases have mostly occurred ‘in other places’.

Bringing young people in

Lambert is passionate about developing children and young people’s capabilities; I agree, and they deserve a central and active role in the future of school geography, both as agents in the reformulation of the curriculum, and as citizens of the world it – and they – will help to shape.  If we are bold enough to reform the way we approach the global dimension of school geography, then we should involve young people in our journey.  Exactly how this could be done is beyond the scope of this piece!

As the world moves on, so must geography.  If we accept that the Anthropocene is indeed a ‘game-changer’ (as Lambert refers to it on a comment in the thread below his article), we need to continue with the pivot to the global and take the futures dimension seriously too.

I welcome feedback on these ideas.



Aguilera, R. (2020) The Glass Half-Empty – Debunking the Myth of Progress in the Twenty-First Century. London: Repeater

Alcock, D. (2019a) ‘An Optimistic Education: Rebalancing the curriculum to more accurately convey human progress’. Impact: Journal of Chartered College of Teaching, Issue 6:

Alcock, D. (2019b) ‘Optimism, Progress and Geography – Celebration and Calibration’. Teaching Geography, 44(3), 118-120

Boulding, E. (1988) Building a Global Civic Culture: Education for an Interdependent World. Teachers College Press: Columbia University, New York.

Bregman, R. (2020) Humankind – A Hopeful History.  London: Bloomsbury

DeFries, R. (2014) The Big Ratchet – How Humanity Thrives in the Face of Natural Crisis.  New York: Basic Books

Diamond, J. (2011) Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive.  London: Penguin

Frankopan, P. (2016) The Silk Roads: London: Bloomsbury

Hardin, G. (1968) The Tragedy of the Commons: Science, New Series, Vol. 162, No. 3859 (Dec. 13, 1968), pp. 1243-1248

Hickel, J. (2017) The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and its Solutions. London: Heinemann

Hoffman, J., Pelzer, P., Albert, L., Béneker, T., Hajer, M., Mangnus, A. (2021) ‘A futuring approach to teaching wicked problems’, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, January 2021

Hutchinson, F. (1996) Educating Beyond Violent Futures.  London: Routledge

Lambert, D. (2021) ‘The Geography of It All’, Public History Weekly 9:1 (Accessed 1.3.21)

Parkinson, A. (2020) New PC Geographies (Post Coronavirus) v10.0 September 2020 (Accessed 3.3.21)

Paulsen, R. (2019a) ‘Better and better?  A comment on Hans Rosling’ YouTube: Better and better? A comment on Hans Rosling – YouTube (Accessed 1.3.21)

Paulsen, R. (2019b) ‘Why You Shouldn’t Listen to Self-Serving Optimists Like Hans Rosling and Steven Pinker’ In These Times, 27 March, 2019: Why You Shouldn’t Listen to Self-Serving Optimists Like Hans Rosling and Steven Pinker – In These Times (Accessed 1.3.21)

Roser, M. (2018) The world is much better.  The world is awful.  The world can be much better.  Webpage – (Accessed 1.3.21)

Standish, A. (2020) ‘Time for geography to catch up with the world’, Geography, 105:3, 135-141, DOI: 10.1080/00167487.2020.12106475

By David Alcock (Geography Teacher at Bradford Grammar School and founder of Hopeful Education @HopefulEd)

[1] ‘What might a more hopeful geography look like?’ Presentation given to 2021 GA Geography Teacher Educators Conference:

[2] The author declares an interest here: see his presentation given to the 2021 GTE Conference, op cit, and



Scene from 1990 film version of Lord of the Flies (source)

Script of an assembly delivered by Hermione Baines and David Alcock via voiceover Powerpoint to Bradford Grammar School pupils on Friday 15 January 2021. The slide set and notes are available upon request from @DavidAlcock1

Deep down, what is human nature? What are we really like underneath?  Novelist William Golding explored this idea in his 1951 novel ‘The Lord of the Flies’.  It tells the story of a group of well-brought up English schoolboys, shipwrecked on a deserted island. To start with, the boys organise themselves and try to have fun and wait for rescue. However, as the days go by, their rules break down. As fear takes over, they descend into appalling savagery and violence.  We won’t spoil  the ending for those of you have not yet read it, but lets just say it doesn’t end well – as this still from a film of the book suggests​.

William Golding did not have a positive view of human nature – he said, ‘Even if we start with a clean slate, our nature compels us to make a muck of it’ and ‘Man produces evil as a bee produces honey’.

Thomas Hobbes by John Michael Wright (source)

Golding’s view of human nature is widely held. The 17th Century philosopher Thomas Hobbes considered what humans were like before we created ‘society’ – he argued that in a ‘state of nature’ human beings are driven by fear – fear of the other – our lives would be a state of permanent war and conflict – deep down, this is what we are.​

As a historian, it’s easy to find examples of humans being driven by fear, greed, and hatred to do terrible things to each other; it sometimes doesn’t seem to take much to turn apparently civilised human beings into aggressive, cruel creatures. Is this what humans, deep down, are like?

The island of ‘Ata (source)

This is the uninhabited island of ‘Ata.  It is 100 nautical miles from the main island of Tonga, which is itself 2000 nautical miles east of the Australian mainland.  What does it have to do with Golding – or indeed Hobbes?​

Well, in 1966, Peter Warner, an Australian man in his 20s, sailed his boat to the island, which had been deserted for over a hundred years.  But he saw fire – a sign of life – and when he drew closer he found six boys.  These six boys told him that they had ‘borrowed’ a boat from the main island of Tonga, they’d got caught in a storm, and eventually landed on Ata, fifteen months previously.  The boys were taken back to the mainland, where their families had given them up for dead.​

Six boys, on an island – a recipe for disaster, right? Rivalries, fighting, bullying?  No.  Quite the opposite.

Peter Warner, crew, and the six boys, 1968 (source)

The boys – seen here in a reunion photo with Captain Warner a few years after the incident – had actually set up a small commune with food garden, hollowed-out tree trunks to store rainwater, a gymnasium with curious weights, a badminton court, chicken pens and a permanent fire, all from handiwork, an old knife blade and much determination.​

While the boys in Lord of the Flies come to blows over the fire, those in this real-life version tended their flame so it never went out, for more than a year.​

The kids agreed to work in teams of two, drawing up a strict roster for garden, kitchen and guard duty. Sometimes they quarrelled, but whenever that happened they solved it by imposing a time-out. Their days began and ended with song and prayer.​

Captain Warner wrote in his memoir:  “Life has taught me a great deal, including the lesson that you should always look for what is good and positive in people.”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau by Maurice Quentin de la Tour (source)

One example doesn’t prove much.  But it got Dutch author Rutger Bregman thinking: was Golding’s book symptomatic of a negative view of human nature which doesn’t really reflect how most humans actually behave?​

​The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued that in a state of nature, we are naturally cooperative beings: our essence is to work together.  But Bregman argues that Rousseau’s message has been overwhelmed by a more cynical image of humanity, which has been proclaimed in films and novels, history books and scientific research – and perhaps even in education?​

​Bregman argues that this distrust has been driven by individualism, an increasingly overdramatic media, and politicians keen to get the support of voters who are scared of ‘other people’ (does this remind you of a certain US president?).

Rutger Bregman and Humankind cover (source)

Bregman has a hopeful message – he thinks we think ourselves worse than we really are, and this is what causes the problems because we assume that people are bad, when the vast majority of people are in essence good at heart – he asks us to take a positive view of the world.​

​We have been thinking that recent events – particularly the way people have coped with the pandemic – support this hopeful view of humankind. Despite some people behaving selfishly with no regard for the welfare of their fellow human beings, behavioural scientists suggest that the vast majority of people have been cooperating for the greater good, wanting to help each other and sticking to the rules, even when they could get away with breaking them.​

​As Bregman says,  We live on a planet where people are deeply inclined to be good to one another. Do good in broad daylight, and don’t be ashamed of your generosity. Its time for a positive view of humankind’.

[Inspired? Read about Hopeful Education – whose mission is to encourage young people to ‘evaluate progress, believe in humanity, and create a better world’ – in this post, and follow @HopefulEd on Twitter.]

Humankind by Rutger Bregman (2020) is published by Bloomsbury.


Geographies of the air – hiding in plain sight? Pt 2: militarisation and intensification

Co-authored with Harvey Logan (@harv_logan /
Fig. 1: Delivery Drone by mollyrose89 (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Welcome back, and we trust you have refuelled and are ready for another journey through the geographies of the air! Part one of this two-part series, where we explored air’s importance in creating a sense of place, air as a medium, and some cultural geographies of air, can be found here.

In the post below, we explore the militarisation of airspace and aerial intensification, we discuss how much attention air might deserve in the future, and we take a brief look at whether there is room in the school curriculum for a deeper consideration of the geographies of air.

Militarised airspace

Militarised air power, much like air pollution, often disrespects borders. The shooting down of commercial airliners is one obvious example. PS752 and IR655 in Iran, MH17 in Ukraine, KAL007 in Russia. This list is not exhaustive. It is important to remember that it is not only rebel groups or insurgent governments who shoot down airliners – IR655 was downed by the US Navy.

Battles in the air are rarely fought over territory. They are strategic endeavours or shows of power and involve a significant amount of what could be construed as ‘willy waving’. Long-range missions by Russian aircraft venture close to the airspace boundaries of the USA or its NATO allies, and elicit a response from fast jets like those in the RAF’s QRA squadron. American ‘spy planes’ regularly undertake 30+ hour sorties from US the East Coast to the Baltic and back again, supported by aerial refuelling tankers, essentially just to show they can. Airspace in the Alaskan region has seen a lot of this type of military activity recently, with clear geopolitical links to both nations’ ambitions in the Arctic.

Concerns have been raised for decades about militarised urbanism (see, for example, Mike Davis’s City of Quartz), but these have risen in more popular consciousness recently with the targeted use of military resources in urban environments becoming more commonplace. Low-flying helicopters, operated in a manner incompatible with accepted safe procedures, were used this year to disperse BLM protesters in New York City and Washington DC, as shown in this video:


The military applications of unmanned drones (UAV’s) can be criticised for encouraging a lack of restraint in combat as there are no ‘lives on the line’. People living in conflict zones have reported feeling a state of fear when skies are blue, as they know drones will be flying.

Equally though, drone technology has contributed to beneficial and humanitarian developments. The inclusion of UAV’s in medical supply chains can be life changing in rural areas. Drones can revolutionise the delivery of blood, medicines and vaccines to remote health facilities where land-based transport is hard to come by (see Fig.1 and For some countries, especially where roads are scarce and of poor quality, UAV’s may be the only way to deliver a refrigerated COVID-19 vaccine to rural and isolated areas before it thaws.

UAV’s can also be used for GIS or mapping, assisting in the creation of high-quality maps and 3D models which can be used to assist with humanitarian disaster response or climate science, amongst other things (

Aerial intensification

The increasing usage of drones for deliveries may herald a new ‘aerial intensification’, bringing into play considerations of aerial congestion, noise pollution, collisions, and risks to other animate and inanimate objects.  These issues will be even more important to contemplate when humans are brought into the mix: ‘urban air mobility’ (UAM) and the concept of the ‘flying car’ have prompted social concerns relating to airspace. With UAM, this includes the ability to use aerial transport to opt-out of shared public space – see, for example:

The development of UAM will move urban airspace into the regulatory lens of urban planning. Decisions around land use will incorporate airspace as an important aspect of the city and its transport network rather than simply as empty space.

And it is not just flying vehicles using the air for transport. There is a growing number of urban cable cars around the world. See here:

A declining concern?

Aside from pollution and climate change, understanding the ways that humans interact with the air may in the near future be a declining concern, as environmental regulations, moral concerns (such as voluntary scaling back and ‘flight shaming’), and the growth of high speed rail lines, especially in emerging economies, may stymie the growth of flights.

Some commentators suggest that hyperloops (see Fig. 2) (or perhaps maglevs and vactrains, for those of us who approve of the technology but not of Musk’s assessment that “Individualised mass transit is the future”) may reduce intra- and even inter-continental travel by air. The massive drop in air traffic thanks to covid-19 related restrictions and fears may accelerate this decline.  This downturn may be a temporary one, but will we see a shift away from more ‘superfluous’ flights such as for meetings and job interviews?  Conference calling capabilities have improved and have become commonplace.  Also, an increase in virtual reality technology could mean that such remote meetings might begin to feel more visceral.

Fig. 2: Virgin Hyperloop One on display in New York City, 2019. Source: Z22 (CC BY-SA 4.0)

On the other hand, airspace may retain its importance, as a greater focus on airspace management (including next-generation air traffic control and restricting contrails) is one of the best tools to reduce aviation emissions in the medium-term. Along with drones and urban air mobility, this will require us to start changing how we use airspace. In these respects, airspace is not a declining concern.

Moreover, continuing economic development in emerging and developing countries will almost certainly lead to an increase in flights; see, for example, the growth of the China-Africa airlink, which will override the ‘first world’ trends of flying less.  And although it could be a long time away, the widespread adoption of more environmentally friendly forms of aviation may also lead to a busier aerospace.

Air and outer space

Although ‘air’ is not synonymous with ‘outer space’, there is a continuum between the two, and geographers should note that  control of outer space has risen up the geopolitical and business agenda – here, one thinks of Space X, the renaissance of missions to Mars, the United States Space Force and an emboldened China, whose most recent mission, Chang’e 5, has reinvigorated debate about lunar missions. There is an overlap here with next-generation airspace management, as satellite-based aircraft tracking has enabled this.

Air in the curriculum

The Key Stage 3 national curriculum programme of study for geography explicitly focuses  on “the location of globally significant places – both terrestrial and marine” (Department for Education, 2013: 1) but there is no mention of the air.  And whilst contested maritime boundaries feature in all A Level specifications, only limited attention is given to geographies of the air that are not specifically physical.  One exception is Edexcel’s mention of air power in its Superpower unit, and even then, it is only made explicit in the context of the costs of maintaining such power:

“7.9 Existing superpowers face ongoing economic restructuring, which challenges their power … b. The economic costs of maintaining global military power (naval, nuclear, air power, intelligence services) and space exploration are questioned in some existing superpowers.” (Edexcel, 2016: 53)

Stretching the definition of air (a mixture of gases that surround a planet) to include the gaps between planets and the definition of geography (study of the earth) to embrace considerations of interactions between humans and outer space has led to an increased range of areas for geographical study, for example the governance of space as a contested ‘commons’ does feature in some resources aimed at A Level students.

Of course, the geography curriculum, especially at secondary school level, is already crowded… so can it afford to take it on?


We feel that geographers should spend some time contemplating how the issues that we discuss above are interdependent and how we might conceive of a more robust and wide-ranging geography of the air that takes it beyond its home in physical geography and meteorology.

In an age of a globally prevalent virus which cannot be seen by the naked eye, it is time for an increased awareness that the invisible is crucial in geography.  The air is a neglected aspect of our discipline which is ‘hiding in plain sight’.

David Alcock (@DavidAlcock1 and

Harvey Logan (@harv_logan and

December 2020


(Most references are hyperlinked)

Department for Education (2013) Geography programmes of study for England: key stage 3: National Curriculum – Geography key stages 3 and 4 (

Edexcel (2016) GCE A level Geography specification issue 5:


Geographies of the air – hiding in plain sight? Pt 1: Place, Medium and Value

Co-authored with Harvey Logan (@harv_logan /


London Underground by Pavel Culek

“Strategy and international politics are influenced strongly by geography”

This is the tantalising and prescient first sentence of Stefan Possony and Leslie Rosenzweig’s article ‘The Geography of the Air’ (1955: 1).  However, within a few lines, it becomes clear that the promise of an examination of the complex relationships between power and aerial geographies is snuffed out, and the remainder of the piece concerns itself with a narrow conception of the geography of air:

“The geography of the air… is the study of the physical differences of the air in various locations and altitudes” (p.1)

This definition, whilst concerning itself with a worthy and longstanding field of study within physical and environmental geography, is, ironically, claustrophobic and airless in its failure to conceive of a wider geography of air.

Below, we sketch out some of the contours of the existing  geographies of air and ponder the extent to which human geography has neglected the potentialities of exploring this theme.  We do not pretend to have carried out an exhaustive study of pre-existing materials or to have employed academic rigour; we merely offer this up as a ‘think piece’, and we welcome feedback!

The human scale – air, odours, and place

“There’s something surreal about plunging into the bowels of the earth to catch a train. It’s a little world of its own down there, with its own strange winds and weather systems, its own eerie noises and oily smells” (Bryson, 1995)

In this vivid description of the London Underground, Bill Bryson takes the reader’s mind’s eye (or is it their mind’s nose?) to an anonymous platform, where they can easily imagine themselves contemplating the history and complexity of the capital’s underbelly.

This snippet also illustrates how a place can be represented multi-dimensionally.  We understand why vision might be the sense that geographers first rely on when trying to understand a place, but sound and smell, let alone the physical sensation of moving air on the skin, deserve more of a look-in, if you excuse the pun.  Mustiness and mildew can indicate that a place is uncared-for, abandoned, and past its prime.  The stench of human and animal excreta can build on this impression.  Smells and noises can be interesting, evocative, and even exciting too.

Indeed, there has been a growing trend to document and explore sensory landscapes in the early years of the 21st Century: psychogeography has experienced somewhat of a renaissance, for example through the writings of Will Self, Iain Sinclair, and Robert MacFarlane.  Reflecting on the positionality of these and other writers, there have also been interesting and crucial discussions about dominant ‘gazes’ in an era in which Geography is finally beginning to open itself up to an authorship more representative of humanity.

Nevertheless, researchers, urbanists, artists and writers have woken up and smelt the coffee: lived realities are not just about dry statistics and about what is seen, but they are also about the fuller sensory experience of a place, including odours and sounds.  A lovely discussion of ‘The sensory landscape of the city’ took place on Radio 4’s Thinking Allowed in January 2018 and is available here.

Smellscaping has risen in prominence as a fieldwork tool in recent years: see, for example, and – and as shown in Figure 1, below.  Soundscapes have also recently experienced a similar trajectory.

Aroma Wheel

Figure 1: Aroma Wheel by Kate McLean

Source: Field Studies Council

Air as a medium

It should also be remembered that visual and aural impressions of a place are also transmitted through the medium of air.  Accusations that this is stretching the importance of the air too far are easily countered by pointing out that these impressions are affected by atmospheric conditions – for example, if an observer waits for the cloud to clear before taking a photograph of a Lakeland mountain, then they will be misrepresenting the reality of the place when it was shrouded in fog.  How often do geographers wait until rain, fog, or wind has passed before recording what a place ‘looks’ like?

The role of air as a medium has of course been crucial in the covid-19 pandemic, and beyond the devastating medical and economic impacts of the virus and attempts to combat it, it also opens several research avenues for geographers, from the impact of ‘social distancing’ on hospitality venues and desire lines in parks to the way it has focused attentions on conceptions of ‘fresh air’.

The economic and cultural, and environmental value of air

Geographers are aware of the importance of views and sight lines in both urban and rural areas.  Aesthetics and place attachment are both tied up in these considerations.  Recent consideration of ecosystem services has heightened the importance of views, especially as monetary value is placed upon what can be seen from workplaces, homes, sites of leisure and consumption, and in the journeys in between such places.  A pleasant view, for example, of greenery, can boost property values.  A consideration of the geographies of air must also pay attention to air pollution; such pollution, even more so than water pollution, does not respect borders.

Cultural Geographies of flight

The ability to see the earth from the air was undoubtedly a feat which re-oriented understandings of world Geography.  With the modern ease of accessibility to satellite imagery, the ‘view from above’ is something to which people have become all too accustomed.  In the not too distant past, this new perspective on the planet revolutionised how people understood the world and their place in it.

The lyrical writings of Frenchman Antoine de Saint Exupéry, a pilot for Aéropostale in the early 1900’s, tend towards awe when describing the experience of flight and the viewpoint it afforded on landscapes passing below.  They offer valuable insights into how flying changed our conception of the world:

“Even if a road does venture across a desert, it twists and turns to enjoy the oases […] Flight has brought us knowledge of the straight line.” (Saint Exupéry, 1939, p.33).

The enduring influence of Saint Exupéry’s work highlights how the air has taken on a role as the location in which cultural works are situated.

Alongside wonderment though, geographers ought to consider the extent to which aviation in this period contributed to enshrining colonial ideologies and mindsets.  Flying was an activity reserved for colonial elites and being up in the air was assumed as a position of superiority; their subjects (both the human and natural) could be surveilled below.  Airline advertisements of the time, like the following (Figure 2), reflected this.

Flight Poster

Figure 2: 1919 advertisement for Latécoère (the predecessor to Aéropostale) – regarded as the world’s first airline route map. Moroccans are pictured almost worshiping the arrival of an aircraft resplendent in French insignia

Source: Ovenden and Roberts, 2019

This paper by Lucy Budd considers how the ‘view from the air’ has developed and constructed our understanding of landscapes throughout the history of flight:

That’s enough hot air for now…

In Part 2, we will mull over aerial militarisation and intensification.  We will also consider what is taught, and what might be taught, about the geographies of air, before asking you to contemplate the ‘place’ of geographies of the air in geographical imaginations and curricula.

David Alcock and Harvey Logan

December 2020


Bryson, B (1995) Notes from a Small Island (HarperCollins)

Ovenden, M and Roberts, M (2019). Airline Maps: A Century of Art and Design. (Penguin)

Possony, S T and Rosenzweig, L (1955) The Geography of the Air in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 299, pp1-11

Saint Exupéry, A (1939; Translated 1991). Wind, Sand and Stars. (Penguin)

Hopeful Education Optimism and progress Uncategorized

Hopeful Education

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is young-people-hope-luke-ellis-craven.jpg
Luke Ellis-Craven, Unsplash

“Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up” – David Orr

How should we respond when young people express their worries about the future of the world to us? There is, of course, a need to listen, empathise, and support. But what if the education system can do more than that? What if we can instill hope – active hope – so that our young people can be more confident about the future?

Hopeful Education aims to do just that, by encouraging young people to understand progress, believe in humanity, and help to create a better world. Let’s look at Hopeful Education’s take on these strands.

Progress is a complex notion, but in terms of Hopeful Education, it will be understood as collective social improvement in spheres such as health, education, cooperation, democracy, and prosperity.  Global improvements in all these areas have been recorded in the modern era, with a marked acceleration since 1950, but they are under-appreciated.  Highlighting such improvements often leads to disbelief, warnings of complacency, accusations of naivety, and even accusations of conspiracy with ‘the establishment’.  Some commentators believe that publicising and celebrating progress strengthens the status quo, therefore stifling future progress.  These concerns should be recognised and interrogated, but they should not stifle the public’s understanding of progress.  Hopeful Education encourages learners to engage with and interrogate the notion of progress, understand the gains that have already been made and why they have been made, and use this understanding to inform debates about future progress.

Belief in humanity has been under increasing threat in recent decades.  Humans are social animals, who have thrived largely because they have learned to co-operate, trust, communicate and co-exist with each other.  These qualities are still evident in abundance, but they are under-appreciated and are being eroded by polarising and divisive political and media discourse, both deliberate and subconscious.  Blaming others, accentuating differences rather than similarities, and an over-representation of the negative side of human nature in media output (including social media) has led to a growing mistrust in human nature.  Hopeful Education seeks to reaffirm the potential of human nature to work collectively for the common good, whether that be in the classroom, inter-generationally, locally, nationally, or in the context of global governance and co-operation.

Striving for a better world can, at first glance, be accepted as a given for pretty much everyone in any society, although debate remains as to what constitutes ‘better’, and whether the scope should be restricted to humanity or expanded to cover the whole biosphere.  But – especially for children – admitting that one should strive for a better world can come across as self-evident or cliched at best, and crass or indicative of weakness at worst.  Striving for a better world is also under threat from both a resurgent nationalism and populism, and from a political focus on the economy over the environment or social wellbeing.  It also has a reputation, fostered by some social commentators and politicians, for being vague, hair-shirted, and anti-progress.  Hopeful Education champions and facilitates futures thinking and education for sustainable development, taking these crucibles beyond their current homes in citizenship and geography into the broader educational sphere.

Hopeful Education seeks to understand the reasons for nihilism, mistrust, and complacency, but as an avowedly positive movement it seeks to weaken their influence.

A syncretic approach

The three strands of Hopeful Education are not new, but their combination into a coherent educational movement is novel and potentially powerful.  Hopeful Education has been informed by a variety of influences, both from within and beyond the world of education.  This syncretic approach has its strengths, as it brings together, and builds upon, ideas which may have never been combined in this way before.  However, as Hopeful Education develops, inconsistencies, contradictions and gaps will emerge, and it will prompt a myriad of philosophical questions.  These should be viewed as strengths, a source of vibrancy, and a basis for deliberation, rather than as weaknesses.

A new type of hope

Names are powerful, and the choice of the name Hopeful Education was a long journey.  The author used alternative titles such Optimistic Education in some of his writings in 2018-2020, reflecting his personal worldview.  But this was felt to be too prescriptive, and its apparent complacency put it in danger of overshadowing the significant problems and threats faced by humanity and the planet.  Other names were also considered – see this blog post for more on this.  The author is fully aware of the body of educational literature based around the ‘pedagogy of hope’, inspired by Paolo Freire’s 1992 book of that title (republished in 2004), and including more recent additions such as ‘Educating for Hope’ by David Hicks (2014).  Hopeful Education shares some of the philosophy of the pedagogy of hope, for instance the belief that inequality and injustice should be challenged, that educating for hope should be interdisciplinary, and that it is a collective pursuit.  However, it differs in that many writers on the pedagogy of hope seem to overlook or dismiss the gains made by humankind in recent decades.  There is also sometimes, ironically, a sceptical view of human nature, and the language used in some of the output could be accused of fostering anxiety.  As the Hopeful Education movement develops, the author looks forward to engaging with adherents of a pedagogy of hope, and he trusts that his use of the root word ‘hope’ will be taken as a homage rather as a co-option or dilution of a ‘pedagogy of hope’.

Hope, progress and optimism

Hopeful Education chimes with the claims of the one of the key proponents of the pedagogy of hope – David Orr – who wrote that “Realistic hope… requires us to check our optimism at the door and enter the future without illusions” (Orr, 2009: 185).  Elsewhere, Orr has opined that “Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up” (Orr, 2008) – which sits comfortably with Hopeful Education – but in the very next sentence he goes on to show why at least his conception of a pedagogy of hope diverges from that of Hopeful Education: “I don’t know any reason to be optimistic now, or to predict great success for the human species” (ibid).  Whilst Hopeful Education recognises environmental and social challenges, Orr’s bleak statement is in opposition to the first strand of Hopeful Education: it encourages learners to engage with and interrogate the notion of progress, understand the gains that have already been made and why they have been made, and use this understanding to inform debates about future progress.

Vision 2050: the fruits of Hopeful Education

What would the world look like in 2050 if its citizens had undertaken a Hopeful Education?

  • People would be able to make more reasoned judgements and action, leading to more effective individual, corporate, and government decision-making
  • People would be less fearful and stressful, resulting in a better place in which to live and to foster future generations, measured by wellbeing and health metrics
  • People would be more emboldened to take action to resolve the remaining challenges, secure in knowledge that other challenges have been overcome: “When we have a fact-based worldview, we can see that the world is not as bad as it seems – and we can see what we have to do to keep making it better” (Rosling et al, 2018, Factfulness)
  • People would have more chance to examine, and act on, local issues, as they will have contextualised global trends

In the spirit of openness, it is worth considering some of the challenges which a realisation of this vision might bring: one is that such a world might be more complacent (leading to a reduction in efforts towards realising a better world), and another is that it might become more parochial.  Also, one of the assumptions behind this vision is that the world will have experienced a continuation of the current trends in terms of human development – which is possible, but not certain, to occur.

The project begins

Achieving such a worldview will take a monumental, long-term, and multi-pronged approach.  Education will play a crucial role.   It has the power to instil hope comprehensively, and at a time of life when opinions and critical thinking are being formed.  It will not be able to succeed alone: some ideas for how a hopeful worldview might be possible outside of the world of formal education will be given due consideration, and it will be important to bear these in mind when cohesive strategies are being developed.  But Hopeful Education is where this project begins.

In my next post I will offer some ideas as to how Hopeful Education could be enacted. In the meantime, please do contact me in the comments below or via @DavidAlcock1 on Twitter. Thank you.

Outdoor Learning Uncategorized

It might just take a nudge to cycle to work

canal bike

Canals can make the cycle to work more pleasant


Every journey starts with one small step.  Occasionally you need a nudge to take that step.  An old housemate of mine gave me that nudge over a decade ago.

I had been driving to my previous teaching job, six miles from my old house, as a matter of habit: every weekday I would jump in the car, drive off and arrive at school.  Then I would drive back.  And then I would often go to the gym, or for a run, or a swim, sometime in the evening.  Sure, I had a bike, but I barely used it.

My housemate used to cycle to his work place and suggested that I try it too.  And one sunny summer’s day I did.  But what a kerfuffle – I had to take a suit and my shirt to school the previous day, then go in, shower, get changed, then start my working day.  Then there’s the hassle at the end of the school day too.  Was it really all worth it?

Time saving

But the weird thing is that, in my case at least (I live just over five miles from my place of work), once I put a few simple things in place, cycling to work actually saved me time.  Why is that?

  • Thanks to good old traffic congestion, I take the same time to cycle in as it takes other teachers in my area to drive in (not that I am trying to be smug about it – more of that later…)
  • I keep suits, shoes, towels and so on at work, and replace them on rotation or when I occasionally get the train in
  • I shower at school – but I would have showered at home anyway – so that’s time neutral!
  • I no longer have to have a separate training session when I get home – the commute (and extended versions if necessary) is the baseline of my exercise regime

Other benefits

Apart from time saving, the benefits are manifold:

  • fitness
  • fresh air (half of my route is off the main road)
  • resilience (getting through the odd cold or rainy journey builds up your defences for some of life’s minor inconveniences)
  • a feeling of belonging (swapping pleasantries with other cyclists and the same friendly old fellow on his canalside constitutional)
  • money-saving (we are now a one-car household, saving money on buying, servicing, taxing, and fuelling a second vehicle – and no more gym fees – and many employers offer the Cycle to Work scheme so you can buy a bike from your pre-tax income, and stagger the payments throughout the year)
  • doing your little bit to reduce carbon dioxide emissions
  • giving you an extra leisure activity to do in your own time
  • the ability to eat more food and ‘earning’ the odd beer or two

Yes, I might sound smug, but smugness is an occupational hazard of a cycle commuter!  (Give me a virtual slap in the face if you wish.)

Let’s go back to that small step – the first day I biked to my old school.  Things soon got into a routine. I went from biking once a week, to twice, then three times.  I cycle every day.

Barriers and how to overcome them

There will be barriers to overcome.  These can include living far away from your place of work, dropping off children on the way to and from school/nursery (there are ways to do this!), lacking a bike, worries about safety, concerns about your fitness levels, anxieties about frosty or wet journeys… and more.  Why not chat to people who already bike in about these barriers and how they can be broken down?

Also, advice can be found on the British Cycling website, and in terms of safety, none of us are immune to the dangers of cycling, but they can be overstated, and awareness of risk probabilities will help you to put them in perspective.

Moreover, I believe that the risks are outweighed by the mental and physical health benefits of cycling.  Some unions will support you in the case of accidents which might take place on your commute – and you could seek extra cover from British Cycling or other providers.

Cycle path YEP

Cycle paths can facilitate your commute


My journey started with a small step.  What will nudge you to take yours?  Could it be the lighter traffic we are seeing in these times of remote working?  Could it be worries about public transport?  The need to save money and get fit?  If you are able to, why not do a Tebbit and get on your bike?  (If you live far away, trains have space for bikes and you could bike the first or last part of your journey.)

Read on for some hints and tips if your interest has been piqued…

Route planning

  • Try a weekend recce of your journey – you could even make it into an expedition with your family or friends
  • Ask someone who already cycle-commutes for suggestions as to the best way to come (the safest and most enjoyable route may not be the shortest or the one that your smart phone suggests)
  • Canals are much safer from the point of view of accidents, but can be quiet places, so consider cycling with a friend for safety
  • Make use of cycle lanes (especially traffic-free ones)
  • This route planner might help

Start with small steps

  • Share your commitment: complete your first few commutes (or part of them) with someone else
  • Start out one-way (use the train to go one-way), or even come part of the way by train
  • Start in summer, so you are cycling in the light

Be safe, be seen!

  • Wear high-visibility clothing and a helmet
  • Dismount and walk your bike on the pavement if needed
  • Keep your eyes peeled and your ears free (no headphones – unless they are bone conduction, and even then it pays to be hyper-aware!)
  • Take a fully charged phone with you


  • Keep a heavy bike lock at work, or in your chosen bike cubby hole (ask other cyclists for their hints)
  • Keep your clothes and a towel in a locker
  • Wrap things in a waterproof container in your cycling bag

Just in case

  • Consider cycling insurance – e.g. from British Cycling – or, as I mentioned before, some unions may cover you for your commute

Generic resources

There are many generic resources to help cyclists to plan a safe journey.

One starting point for absolute novices is Bikeability – the government’s cycling initiative:

Tips for more experienced cyclists can be found here (from British Cycling):
Phew!  That’s it for now.  As Michael McIntyre says, stay safe…

Best wishes,  David


Geography Optimism and progress Teaching and Learning Uncategorized

Optimism, progress and geography – celebration and calibration

TG article Autumn 2019

In the most recent edition of the Geographical Association’s journal ‘Teaching Geography’ (Autumn 2019) I write about how geography teachers can help our students to become aware not only that the world faces severe challenges, but also that progress has been made, and to learn about past successes so that they can be built upon.

Inspired by ‘Factfulness’ (Hans and Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund, 2018), ‘Enlightenment Now’ (Steven Pinker, 2018) and other sources, I explore common misconceptions about the world held by students (and many teachers too!).  Then, adapting a framework suggested by Bobby Duffy in ‘The Perils of Perception’ (2018), I suggest ways that teachers can recognise and begin to address such misconceptions.

I conclude by asserting that “The raison d’etre of geography is to ‘write about the world’, so for the sake of our students, our discipline and wider society, let’s give it our best, most accurate, shot.”

Copyright restrictions mean that I can’t go into more detail, but I urge Geography teachers to join the GA and subscribe to the journal to keep their subject knowledge and pedagogy up to date:

Geography Optimism and progress Teaching and Learning Uncategorized

Nine things that climate change and human progress have in common

The bumblebee

Source: Trounce [CC BY-SA 2.5 (, from Wikimedia Commons

Pause for a second and consider these short ‘earth stories’:

  • A Nigerian child is vaccinated against polio
  • The bumblebee’s habitat declines in Europe and North America
  • A sesame farmer in Tanzania buys his first bicycle
  • A British farmer decides to plant some grapevines

These kind of ‘earth stories’ rarely make the headlines.  Yet they are all part of the unfolding history of our planet.  Together with millions of other ‘earth stories’, they give us an insight into how we are interacting with our habitat in two key areas: climate change and human progress.

Understanding climate change and recognising the progress made by humankind are central to the future of our planet and of our species.  But neither gets the attention that they deserve.

But why have they both failed to get traction in the public’s consciousness?  The reasons are manifold:

  • Their manifestations are incremental. The 24-hour news cycle, human discourse, and the fast-moving world of business tend to favour more sudden, attention-grabbing events and narratives rather than drawing our attention to trends which occur over decades (such as climate change) or even centuries (such as human progress).


  • Both are complex in terms of their causes and implications. This makes them hard to comprehend, and so it is very tempting for individuals, governments, businesses, educational establishments, and other organisations, to shy away from an in-depth understanding of them.  Complex challenges – also known as ‘wicked problems’ (Rittel and Webber, 1973) – have been recognised as a key focus for modern and post-modern societies – but the hard work in translating this into practical measures has yet to begin in earnest.


  • ‘Human progress’ and ‘Climate change’ are both contested terms. I have written elsewhere about the difficulty in pinning down my worldview in relation to progress, but of course even the term ‘progress’ is a difficult one to pin down:  What spheres of ‘progress’ should we be considering?  Whose ‘progress’ should we have in mind?  How can it be measured?  I have referred to the work of Steven Pinker in previous posts and I believe that he does a good job of summarising ‘progress’:

“What is progress?  … Most people agree that life is better than death.  Health is better than sickness.  Sustenance is better than hunger.  Abundance is better than poverty.  Peace is better than war.  Safety is better than danger.  Freedom is better than tyranny.  Equal rights are better than bigotry and discrimination.  Literacy is better than illiteracy.  Knowledge is better than ignorance.  Intelligence is better than dull-wittedness.  Happiness is better than misery.  Opportunities to enjoy family, friends, culture, and nature are better than drudgery and monotony.”  (Pinker, 2018: p.51)

However, others will disagree on what exactly constitutes progress, or will want to place different weightings on its constituent measures.


  • Obtaining an accurate and unbiased verdict on their current status is difficult. This is the case firstly because both spheres are politically sensitive and therefore most messages come to us via media which are subject to their own biases. Also, even though there exists a wide body of evidence to help us to reach conclusions, this body is so wide, and so dynamic, that it is difficult to synthesise.


  • Both have vested interests who find it hard to accept nuances and exceptions to their stated positions on one side or another. This means that there is considerable muddying of the water around the concepts. For the more outspoken and controversial proponents of human progress, such as Matt Ridley, the picture seems exasperatingly clear – the world is getting better – look at the proof!  But inadequate consideration is still given to the environmental (and social) problems caused by some of the progress made by humankind.  For many climate change activists, it is anathema to concede any benefits of climate change, whereas many sceptics, who have only just conceded that anthropogenic climate change is real, struggle to admit that it will harm the world’s poor more than the rich.


  • Both seem to escape easy academic categorisation. Which discipline – if any? – should take human progress under its wing?  And what about climate change?  Universities have led the way with interdisciplinary departments and projects relating to climate change, but at secondary education level, it is only recently that disciplines outside of Geography have begun to explore it.  Meanwhile, human progress is such a contested term and covers such a wide range of human experiences that it has an even more diffuse academic grounding – and as it is often stigmatised (with, admittedly, some good reason) as being a hobby horse of the right, then it is in danger of being shunned by the academy in favour of more fashionable and ostensibly more socially acceptable concerns.


  • Both seem to have been side-lined by successive governments. In the UK, should the crucial task of tackling climate change be given its own department of government?  Or should it belong to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs?  Either would seem to be sensible – but it is in fact the responsibility of The Department of Energy and Climate Change – two areas which have historically been antagonistic in their priorities.  What about human progress?  Should responsibility for this lie solely with the Department for International Development?  If so, who is responsible for tracking human progress in areas that DfID is not active in, and what about human progress in the UK?


  • Neither issue – particularly human progress – has gained much political traction. Many voters are much more likely to prioritise issues that are closer to home than to pay attention to global issues, especially if they are either misinformed or uninformed about their key roles in the future of the planet.


  • Both terms lead to reactions that are psychologically complex. Just one example is the cognitive dissonance experienced from holding the same two views simultaneously, such as ‘a holiday would do me good’ and ‘flights are one of the most damaging actions that can be taken in terms of carbon emissions’. Sometimes it is easier to avoid thinking about the deeper consequences of one’s actions than to confront them, question them, and act accordingly.  In the context of climate change, George Marshall (2014) has written about the psychological mechanisms that allow us to know something is true but to act as if it is not.


Concluding thoughts

How and when will these barriers be overcome?  When the twin UK obsessions of Brexit and Trump pass, as surely they will, who will set the tone for future social and environmental discourse?

When will a tipping point be reached in either sphere?  When will the default position of anyone (or indeed any algorithm) considering any significant action be to consider the impact of that action on climate change?  When will there be widespread acceptance of the generally positive trends seen in terms of human progress?  As ever, your thoughts are welcome.



Marshall, G (2014) Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change (Bloomsbury)

Pinker, S (2018) Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Humanism and Progress (Allen Lane)

Ridley, M (n.d.)

Rittel, H and Webber, M (1973) ‘Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning’ in Policy Sciences 4 (1973), pp155-169:

Geography Uncategorized

The little island with a large volcano – Part 2: Impacts and can the future be self-sufficient?

“[T]he epoch-making eruption of the Soufrière Hills volcano in 1995… has affected almost every facet of life in this 39.5 square mile island.  Agriculture, industry, land-form, land space and its use, demography, politics, culture and the totality of society have all undergone changes of revolutionary proportions” (Fergus, 2007: 9)


In the previous article, we considered the physical processes involved in recent volcanic activity on Montserrat, with particular reference to the fifth phase of activity (October 2009 – October 2010 and ongoing), together with an assessment of monitoring techniques.  In this article, we will explore the social, economic and environmental impacts of this activity, and we will briefly assess the likelihood for Montserrat to become self-sufficient in the future.

Montserrat map locations (Wikimedia)

Figure 1: Map of Montserrat


Social impacts and plans for the future

Between 1995 and 1999, Montserrat experienced a huge exodus following the destruction of the capital, Plymouth (see Figure 2), and the forced evacuation of many villages and farmland in the southern part of the island (see Figure 3).  In this short time span, the island’s population decreased to about a third of its pre-eruption levels, from 10,000 to 3,000, rising to just over 5,000 by 2006.  This ‘diaspora’ has settled in many countries, mainly Antigua, the UK and the USA.  These migrants joined a large group of people who had already left the island throughout the twentieth century, for example in the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo in 1989.  The exodus in the late 1990s resulted in a loss of economic potential, because a large number of the emigrants were from economically active age groups.  Another impact of the eruption has been the arrival of over 1,500 people from other Caribbean islands who have been attracted by employment opportunities, chiefly in construction.

2 fig 2 Plymouth

Figure 2: View of Plymouth from the north

Source: Author

2 fig 3 Hazard Zones

Figure 3: Montserrat hazard zone map (1 July 2010)

Source: Montserrat Volcano Observatory:

For those Montserratians who have remained, there have been health effects, although these have been well controlled.  The main effects have been the exacerbation of respiratory diseases, silicosis (a kind of lung disease caused by christobalite, an element found in the ash), and post-traumatic stress disorder.  Psychologically, many Montserratians felt under threat in the months following the initial eruptions, and these tensions were heightened by the crowded life in evacuation centres.


Key terms

Diaspora: The population of a country who has migrated abroad and who keep strong ties with their country of origin

GDP: Gross Domestic Product, i.e. the total value of goods and services produced by a country, usually stated over the period of a year

Quango: quasi nongovernmental organisation; an organisation that is financed by the government yet acts independently of it

Anthropogenic: resulting from the influence of human beings

Feral: a plant or animal that has escaped from domestication


Looking to the future, one of the five strands of the island’s Sustainable Development Plan 2008-2020 (see the relevant section at the end of the article) is to achieve a sustainable population: the government hopes to “develop and implement population, labour and immigration policies which will enhance the growth of the population; create initiatives to retain the current population; and create incentives which will facilitate the increase of the population” (Ministry of Economic Development and Trade, Government of Montserrat, N.D.: 7).


Educationally, enrolment in all schools, from nursery to secondary, dropped from 2672 to 620 between 1995 and 1998.  The two secondary schools were consolidated into one, but the school has had problems in retaining staff; most teachers come from other Caribbean islands, and 8 out of the 35 staff departed the school at the end of the 2009/10 academic year.  A community college opened next door to the secondary school in 2005.  New methods of teaching and learning have been introduced to the school and the college, to put the students on a better footing for the future.


Economic impacts and plans for the future

Economically, the volcano dealt the island a blow from which it is still struggling to recover.  The land adjacent to the volcano was some of the most fertile on the island; such land is now agriculturally useless and inaccessible (see Figure 4), and 300 full-time farmers have been dispossessed by the eruptions.  Montserrat, which used to be self-sufficient in many crops, is now dependent on imports for the vast majority of its foodstuffs.  This is clear to see from a brief visit to any of the island’s food stores, and symptomatic of this import dependency is the fact that it can be difficult to buy limes on an island which was once famous for its lime crop (relaxing is still known as ‘liming’ on the island).  There are seeds of hope, however: following a government campaign, many residents have turned towards growing some of their own crops, such as sweet potatoes and papaya, and the frequent ash falls have increased the fertility of the soil.

2 fig 4 hazard sign

Figure 4: Exclusion Zone sign (2010)

Source: Author

Manufacturing industry was strong on the island until the first eruption: it hosted assembly-type businesses and food processing plants, dominated by Montserrat Rice Mills.  Until the evacuation of Plymouth, the island also hosted an off-shore medical school, the American University of the Caribbean, which employed dozens of staff, and whose 400 students had been significant spenders in the local economy.  Future plans to re-invigorate the island’s economy include the expansion of the ash processing industry (see Figure 5) and the construction of a new capital city in Little Bay (see final section and Figure 1).  The music producer George Martin has already funded the recently completed Cultural Centre at a cost of nearly US$3 million to kick-start this development.

2 fig 5 Montserrat Blocks

Figure 5: A potential economic benefit of the activity?

Source: Author

Tourism was another big loser thanks to the eruption: the airport and seaport were in the exclusion zone, huge areas were declared out of bounds, and tourists were deterred by negative travel advice from their governments.  In 2004 a £5 million grant from the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) was secured: some of it was used for ‘capacity building’ (supporting hotel and villa construction), and part of it was spent on hiring a team of consultants from Scotland: ‘Team Tourism’.  Their strategic plan for the island seeks to widen the number of target markets.  The traditional ‘Caribbean’ target markets have been characterised by the phrase ‘newly weds and nearly deads’, the latter referring not only to the substantial cruise ship market but also to the thousands of ‘snowbirds’ – wealthy retirees from northern America who own villas and use them for several months during the winter.  The consultancy renamed these tourists as ‘destination enjoyment’ travelers, and came up with eight more target markets (see inset), along with a new logo and a slogan which elliptically refers to the volcano as a possible attraction: ‘A Caribbean Treasure – Spectacular by Nature’.


2 fig 7 tourist logo

Figure 6: Montserrat Tourist Board logo


Tourism target markets:

– ‘Destination enjoyment’ holidaymakers (especially villa owners and renters)

– Markets inspired by the volcano (volcano tours and the education market)

– The dive market

– The bird watching market

– The cruise market

– The yachting market

– The market for day visits, short breaks and events

– Sports tourism (football and cricket)

– The Montserrat diaspora

Source: Team Tourism (2007)

2 fig 8 air travel

Figure 7: The new airport has a shorter runway than the previous one and can only take small aeroplanes

Source: Author

At the peak of the volcanic activity in 1997, the annual number of tourists was approximately 4,000.  By 2004, a ferry linking Montserrat with Antigua, with two sailings a day had been established, and this ferry facilitated an influx of day visitors.  The estimated number of tourists at this time was 15,000.  When the subsidy stopped in 2005, the ferry service ceased, and by 2006, the numbers had shrunk to 9,500: the Director of the Tourist Board, Mrs Ernestine Cassell, states that “the capacity of the ferry and the small size of our airport severely restrict the number of visitors which come to the island… and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future”.  Another drawback for potential ‘volcano tourists’ is that tours around the site of Plymouth (‘the new Pompeii’) have not taken place for several years thanks to continued volcanic activity.


Energy is one of the most significant economic challenges which face the island.  Today, the island relies upon one relatively inefficient high-speed diesel engine.  The island’s 2008-2020 Sustainable Development Programme has, however, identified renewable energy as a priority for the island.  Some renewable options are, as Director of Montserrat’s Department of Energy, Peter White puts it, “definitely on the back-burner”; these include tidal, whose capital costs are high and whose prospects are low thanks to the low tidal range of the Caribbean Sea, and wave, which also suffers from a high capital cost.  Wind energy, which was trialled in the early 1990s, and which contributed 400kWh at its peak, looks likely to mothballed for a longer period, partly because of a lack of suitable sites (the Centre Hills is due for designation as a National Park), and partly because the direction of the usually reliable ‘trade winds’ has seemingly shifted, meaning that orientating the turbines may be problematic.


For a location in the Caribbean, solar energy might be seen as a possible solution.  However, wide-scale deployment of photovoltaic solar panels has a high capital cost, and there is insufficient space for a large-scale installation.  Recent changes in the direction of prevailing winds on the island also mean that the northern part of the island has seen increasing ash falls, which can obscure the sunlight reaching the panels.


Geothermal energy is the main focus of the department’s renewable energy strategy.  A suitable aquifer, recharged by the sea and fresh water, has been found in Foxes Bay, in Zone C of the Exclusion Zone, between Richmond and Gages (see map).  The planned capacity of this small plant is in the range of 2-5MW, therefore supplying all of the electricity for Montserrat at its current population size, and possibly allowing for Montserrat to be a net exporter of electricity.  Funding is being sought from a variety of sources, but Peter White is struggling to obtain funding for the project.  Current plans for the installation of a medium-speed diesel engine mean that Montserrat will still be open to the mercies of the open market in oil prices.


Environmental impacts and plans for the future

On a regional scale, as mentioned in part 1 of this article, ash from the 11 February dome collapse reached several neighbouring islands, resulting in extensive disruption to air travel in the Eastern Caribbean region, and it also caused millions of pounds worth of damage to banana and other cash crops on Guadeloupe alone.


On Montserrat, the most obvious environmental effect has been the destruction of approximately a third of the island’s tropical rainforest and much of its wildlife.  In addition, ash falls have thwarted vegetation growth in the short-term.  However, the ash has enriched the soil with iron, magnesium and potassium from the weathering of various minerals, such as olivine, pyroxene, amphibole, and feldspar which are found in volcanic ash.


However, perhaps the most notable environmental impact which humans have some degree of involvement in is the effect of feral animals on the island’s ecosystem.  The island’s forests support critically endangered endemic species including the Montserrat Oriole (a bird), Montserrat Galliwasp (a lizard) and Mountain Chicken (actually a frog!).  Feral pigs (see Figure 8) and goats (together with smaller numbers of cattle and donkeys) originating from abandoned livestock in the Exclusion Zone are thought to be dramatically increasing in number in the Centre Hills.  Such animals are damaging native plants and animals, including endemic species, and spreading of exotic species.  They may also be leading to increased soil erosion, agricultural damage, pollution of water and attacks on walkers.

2 fig 9 feral pig (Mont Govt)

Figure 8: Feral pig on Montserrat

Source: Montserrat government:

Richard Bunting, a wildlife ecologist working in collaboration with the Department of the Environment, on a Darwin Initiative project, has been using a number of fieldwork techniques to investigate the impact of such animals on the biodiversity of the Centre Hills region.  These techniques include monitoring a network of infra-red cameras (using food traps to attract animals), driving through the island to count loose livestock, and surveying farmers.  Possible solutions to the problem include controlled hunting, encouraging farmers to tie up feral animals, and laying traps.


Volcanic activity and climate change – did you know?

On a global scale, whenever the volcano erupts, vast volumes of carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide are emitted into the atmosphere.   Whilst it is virtually impossible to accurately measure the volumes of carbon dioxide which comes from the Soufrière Hills volcano, it is useful to put such emissions in context: even if you take the highest estimate of global volcanic carbon dioxide emissions (270 million metric tons per year), human-emitted carbon dioxide levels are more than 130 times higher than volcanic emissions (Gerlach, 2010).


What is the likelihood that Montserrat might become self-sufficient?

In 2008/09, Montserrat relied upon an annual aid budget of £16.4 million from the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID, 2010), a figure equivalent to over £3000 per resident.  It also receives a smaller amount of aid from other international organizations, for example the EU.  The UK coalition government has committed to reprieve overseas aid from its programme of cuts, and anecdotal evidence suggests that Montserrat is unlikely to become self-sufficient in the near future.

The island’s ‘Sustainable Development Plan 2008-2020’, aims for a degree of self-sufficiency: this is summarized in Inset 4, below.  By 2010, some aspects of the plan had already been delivered: these include the completion of Phase 1 of the construction of the new capital at Little Bay in the north of the island (see map) and the current push to invigorate tourism on the island.  There has also been a campaign to try to encourage the 30,000-strong Montserratian diaspora to invest in the island and to consider returning to it.


Strategic Goals of the Montserrat Sustainable Development Plan, 2008-2020

– Economic Management: An environment that fosters prudent economic management, sustained growth, a diversified economy and the generation of employment opportunities

– Human Development: Enhanced human development and improved quality of life for all people on Montserrat

– Environmental Management and Disaster Mitigation: Montserrat’s natural resources conserved within a system of environmentally sustainable development and appropriate strategies for disaster mitigation

– Governance: An efficient, responsive and accountable system of governance and public service

– Population: A sustainable population

Source: Ministry of Economic Development and Trade, Government of Montserrat (N.D.)


So, will Montserrat ‘rise from the ashes’?  Whilst researching for these articles, it has become evident that although the initial shock of volcanic activity on Montserrat has passed, the volcano shows no signs of ceasing its activity, and the impact of this activity is profound and will be long-lasting.  The journey to self-sufficiency will be slow and difficult, and only time will tell whether the residents of this ‘little island’ will have the strength and perseverance to tame the powerfully destructive effects of their ‘big volcano’.


Key points

  • The social, economic and environmental impacts of the eruption of the Soufriere Hills volcano have been significant and long-lasting
  • A new capital city, ash processing, tourism and geothermal energy may provide the basis for future development on Montserrat
  • Montserrat has begun a long journey towards self-sufficiency


Points for discussion

  1. How does Montserrat’s position as a British Overseas Dependency disrupt received notions of ‘developed’ and ‘less developed’ countries?
  2. How would you set Montserrat on a ‘journey towards self-sufficiency’?


Further reading

Montserrat Sustainable Development Plan 2008-2020:

Department for Overseas Development – Montserrat Overview:



This article was written following a field-trip to Montserrat with Dr Caroline Neuberg, Physics teacher at Fulneck School, Leeds, and three sixth form students at the school.  The trip was made possible thanks to grants from the Seismic Schools Initiative based at the School of Earth & Environment, University of Leeds, UK (a seismometer was installed at the Secondary School) and the Royal Society.  I am indebted to Professor Jurgen Neuberg from the University of Leeds for his help on the field trip and his comments on the text.  Finally, I would like to thank all the interviewees mentioned above.


The author

David Alcock is Head of Geography at Fulneck School, Leeds and is an AQA examiner.



Below are the sources referred to in the text.  I am aware that you will probably remove all references from the body of the text, but you may find these useful for verification purposes:

MVO – Cole, P. et al (2010) ‘Report to the Scientific Advisory Committee on Montserrat Volcanic Activity – Report on Activity between 15 August 2009 and 28 February 2010’ (‘SAC 14’) at


BBC (1999)


DfID (2010)


Fergus, Howard A. (2007) ‘Montserrat: Defining Moments’


Gerlach, T. (2010) ‘Voices: Volcanic versus anthropogenic carbon dioxide: The missing science’ at (posted 30 July 2010)


Loughlin, S., Baptie, B. and McCourt, W. (2009) Monitoring Montserrat’s volcano – past, present and future dated 10 July 2009



Ministry of Economic Development and Trade, Government of Montserrat (N.D.) ‘Montserrat Sustainable Development Plan 2008-2020: Montserrat Medium-Term Strategy and Action Plan 2008-2012’


Montserrat Government (2010) ‘Darwin Feral Livestock Project’,, dated 7 January 2010


Team Tourism (2007) ‘Tourism Development in Montserrat 2008-10 Strategy Review and Implementation Framework November 2007’


Wikimedia (accessed 2010) Map of Montserrat:

and Map of Caribbean



Geography Uncategorized

The little island with a large volcano – Part 1: how is volcanic activity on Montserrat monitored?

Aerial view Montserrat

Figure 1: View of Montserrat from International Space Station, 2009


All A-level examination specifications have tectonic hazards as an option.  It can be difficult to keep up-to-date with recent case studies, especially those concerning continuing volcanic events and long-term responses.  Montserrat is a popular case study, but its appearance in some of the most popular Key Stage 3 and GCSE textbooks might put students off revisiting the case study at A-level.  However, the situation in Montserrat is complex and constantly changing, and this justifies revisiting the ‘little island with the large volcano’.  In this article, we will consider the physical processes involved in recent volcanic activity, and we will assess the monitoring and prediction techniques employed on the island.  In the second article, we will consider the long term impacts of the eruptions and the potential for the island to become self-sufficient.

Montserrat map (Wikimedia)

Figure 2: Location of Montserrat – in the easterly part of the Caribbean


Montserrat map locations (Wikimedia)

Figure 3: Map of Montserrat


Phases of volcanic activity

Scientists at the Montserrat Volcano Observatory (MVO) have divided the volcanic activity into five phases interrupted by pauses:

Phase 1: Summer 1995 to the start of 1998

Phase 2: December 1999 to Summer 2003

Phase 3: Summer 2003 to Spring 2007

Phase 4: Summer 2008 to 3 January 2009

Phase 5: 4 October 2009; ongoing (at time of writing – i.e. October 2010)


The main events which Geography students will be familiar with occurred in Phase 1.  Following over three hundred years of inactivity, there were a few precursors of activity early in 1995, in that steam was seen rising from the vent, and mud pools increased in temperature.  The first eruption of the Soufrière Hills Volcano started on 18 July 1995, and this initial eruption led to the evacuation of the capital, Plymouth, and the creation of an exclusion zone in the southern part of the island.  On 25 June 1997 at about 1pm, a much larger eruption occurred. The dome of the volcano collapsed, sending 5 million cubic metres of hot rocks and gases down the side of the volcano.  These ‘pyroclastic flows’ killed 19 people who returned to their farms in the exclusion zone, and they also created an area of new land as some debris was deposited off the coast.  Activity in Phase 1 had significant impacts on the society (notably the emigration of over half of the island’s population), economy and environment; these will be dealt with in detail in the next article.  Activity in Phases 2-5 has been significant enough to warrant the continuation of the exclusion zone, although no further fatalities have occurred.  We will now investigate the most recent phase, to give some idea of the events associated with a volcanic eruption.


Phase 5 of volcanic activity

Phase 5 has enjoyed more media exposure than all but the first phase, partly owing to the publication of an aerial photograph of the eruption taken by an aeroplane passenger in the national press and on several websites (see Figure 4).

Montserrat view from plane (source Metro)

Figure 4: 2010 eruption, taken by an aeroplane passenger


Phase 5 began on 4 October 2009, and was preceded by two days of decreasing gas output and an hour of small volcano-tectonic (VT) earthquakes.  Ash was vented for the first four days, the dome grew, and pyroclastic flows were recorded, some of which reached places which had never been reached before.  This episode ended with five Vulcanian explosions (powerful eruptions of blocks of viscous lava, also known as ‘volcanic bombs’) throughout a five-week period in January-February.  At 11.52am on 11 February, an estimated 40 million cubic metres (approximately 20%) of the north-eastern portion of the lava dome collapsed (see figure 5 below).  This led to several pyroclastic flows and surges.  One flow/surge combination headed down Farm Valley (see Figure 7), which had not previously been affected by such activity – this surge was so powerful that the MVO described it as being “a small lateral blast type pyroclastic surge”.  Lateral blasts will be familiar to students through the 1980 Mount St Helen’s eruption.  The deposits added 650m of new land was added to the island’s coastline at Spanish Point (see map – Figure 3).  This coastal accretion, together with other additions since 1995 have led to the joke that Montserrat is ‘the only part of the British Empire which is still expanding’.

MVO dome collapse (source MVO)

Figure 5: Partial lava dome collapse, 11 February 2010

Source: ‘Report to the Scientific Advisory Committee on Montserrat Volcanic Activity – Report on Activity’ at


These pyroclastic deposits (see Figure 6) consist of ash, together with blocks of ‘andesitic glass’ – a porous, light-grey rock which is ejected at great speed from the vent, trapping water vapour from the magma as it forms.  Some of this material is less dense than water, and it therefore often floats.  These deposits have crystals of pyroxene embedded in them – these originate from the mingling of basaltic (silica-poor) and rhyolitic (acidic and silica-rich) magma.  Once pyroclastic deposits settle, secondary explosions can take place – these occur hours, days, or even weeks after the flow.  In such explosions, groundwater or rainfall comes into contact with the well-insulated and very hot deposits merely tens of centimetres below the exposed upper layer.  The temperature can reach several hundreds of degrees Centigrade even at these shallow depths.  The 11 February event also generated ash clouds of up to 40,000ft (12,200m) in height; the west-southwesterly winds meant that the ash only fell on a small part of eastern Montserrat; it did, however, make landfall on islands such as Antigua, Guadeloupe, Dominica, Martinique and St Lucia.


Figures 6 and 7: Pyroclastic deposits

Source: Author

How is the Soufrière Hills volcano monitored?

One of the ultimate aims of monitoring volcanoes is to identify precursors of activity.  Of course, vulcanologists enjoy the advantage over earthquake seismologists of having a reasonable idea about where an eruption might take place, even if it is difficult to say precisely when activity is likely to take place.


The current monitoring system is maintained by staff at the Montserrat Volcano Observatory (MVO).  There are several monitoring stations situated throughout the island.  They are powered by solar panels, which continuously provide data to the MVO by radio link.  A continuing challenge to scientists has been the threat of pyroclastic flows, pyroclastic surges, and lahars, which have frequently put several stations out of action.  Sometimes, scientists have been extremely lucky; this was the case on 11 February, when a monitoring station was only 2 metres away from the ‘singe zone’ of the pyroclastic surge (see Figure 8).


The seismic network comprises twelve broadband seismometers which can detect ground motion in the frequency range from 0.03Hz to 50Hz: this range encompasses a range of movement, from human footfall, through rockfalls, to movements of magma deep underground.  The GPS network has nine GPS receivers detecting ground deformation with an accuracy of millimetres.  The gas spectrometers sample the plume for suplhur dioxide.


In addition, there are four monitoring stations set up by a British-American research project (SeaCALIPSO), each one containing a tilt- and a strain-meter housed in a 200m-deep borehole.

Fig 8 monitoring station

Figure 8: Monitoring station

Source: Author

Key terms

Pyroclastic flow: A surface-hugging eruption cloud of very hot gas and volcanic particles that moves rapidly across the ground surface

Pyroclastic surge: a surface-hugging hot cloud, less dense than a pyroclastic flow, moving with turbulent flow close to the ground surface (also known as a nuee ardente – French for ‘hot cloud’)

Lahar: A volcanic mudflow

Lava Dome: A build-up of viscous lava near a volcano’s vent

Ash venting: The release of small particles of volcanic rock and glass

Vulcanian explosion: A type of eruption consisting of the explosive ejection of incandescent fragments of new viscous lava, usually in the form of blocks

Volcano-tectonic (VT) earthquakes: seismic episodes originating from volcanic activity

Singe zone: The area adjacent to pyroclastic flow deposits, where vegetation has been partly or wholly burned


How is the monitoring equipment used?

The seismometers detect earthquakes, some of which, referred to as ‘low frequency events’ tend to appear in ‘swarms’ prior to an eruption.  Some of these are cyclic, as magma forces its way through subterranean conduits (passageways), and indicate that a dome collapse is likely to occur.  The GPS units are used to measure the ‘inflation’ of the island when magma builds up in a magma reservoir under the dome, and its ‘deflation’ following the extrusion of material (see figure 9).  Gas spectrometers are used to detect patterns of releases of sulphur dioxide, which is a measure of the overall permeability of the volcanic ‘plumbing system’.  The data from these networks can be combined into a single graph (see figure 10): red vertical bands show phases of extrusive activity (as mentioned above), whilst the green bands are when magma extrusion has paused.  The tilt- and strain-meters complement these data in that they enable vulcanologists to detect ground deformation.

Fig 9 displacement velocities

 Figure 9: Map of GPS measurements showing dome deflation

Source: ‘Report to the Scientific Advisory Committee on Montserrat Volcanic Activity – Report on Activity’ at

Fig 10 seismic events GPS SO2 (MVO)

Figure 10: Graph showing combination of monitoring readings

Source: ‘Report to the Scientific Advisory Committee on Montserrat Volcanic Activity – Report on Activity’ at


Note that whenever magma extrusion has stopped, the GPS signal indicates an inflation of the magma reservoir, while magma extrusion is accompanied by a deflation of the reservoir, and therefore a slight ‘sinking’ of the centre of the island.


Other monitoring techniques

Two additional stations contain arrays of infrasound sensors to detect air pressure variations caused by slow degassing or gas eruptions.  At the Montserrat Volcano Observatory itself, there is an observation platform and webcams, providing the benefits of a visual overview of activity, but with the drawback of being almost useless during times of heavy cloud cover and at night.  There is also a thermal camera, which overcomes these problems of poor visibility.


How effectively can volcanic activity on Montserrat be predicted?

To what extent do vulcanologists believe that they can predict when an eruption on Montserrat is likely to occur?  The Director of the MVO, Dr Paul Cole, uses a metaphor to explain why initial eruptions are usually relatively easy to predict:

“It’s much like an explorer creating a new path through the jungle.  When he first cuts his way through, it takes a lot of effort, and he makes a lot of noise as he slowly works his way through the undergrowth.  But with each repeated use of the path, the journey becomes easier, and there is less disturbance.  With volcanoes, if the vent has been used after a long period of inactivity, the magma has to break through and widen faults, creating seismic signals, but with each subsequent eruption, the magma encounters fewer obstacles, and therefore leaves behind a weaker seismic trace.”

Dr Cole also takes care to mention that the activity of some other volcanoes, particularly those with more basaltic (less silica-rich) magma, is more ‘predictable’ than that of the Soufrière Hills volcano.

In Montserrat, volcanic activity has occurred in phases, and there are a variety of characteristic signals which correlate with such phases.  However, it remains exceptionally difficult to predict when such phases are due to start or end, and it is equally hard to know when episodes of violent and extrusive vulcanicity will occur within these phases.  Monitoring the Soufriere Hills volcano has helped to minimise its impact on the island’s residents, but its eruptions have had serious effects on the society, economy and environment of Montserrat.  It is to these impacts that we will turn to in part 2 of this article.


Key points

  • The Soufriere Hills volcano has been active in distinct phases
  • Physical processes involved in eruptive phases are complex
  • Despite sophisticated monitoring techniques, predicting volcanic eruptions remains extremely difficult


Points for discussion

  • To what extent does media exposure influence our knowledge of hazards?
  • What monitoring techniques do vulcanologists share with seismologists?


Further reading

‘Report to the Scientific Advisory Committee on Montserrat Volcanic Activity – Report on Activity’ at

Loughlin, S., Baptie, B. and McCourt, W. (2009) Monitoring Montserrat’s volcano – past, present and future dated 10 July 2009



This article was written following a field-trip to Montserrat with Dr Caroline Neuberg, Physics teacher at Fulneck School, Leeds, and three sixth form students at the school.  The trip was made possible thanks to grants from the Seismic Schools Initiative based at the School of Earth & Environment, University of Leeds, UK (a seismometer was installed at the Secondary School) and the Royal Society.  I am indebted to Professor Jurgen Neuberg from the University of Leeds for his help on the field trip and his comments on the text.  Finally, I would like to thank all the interviewees mentioned above.