11.05.2012 - Natural Sciences Sector

Geoparks share experience in volcanic disasters and recovery

© Unzen Volcanic Area GeoparkGeopark Unzen Volcanic Area japan

Societies all over the world have developed specific sets of knowledge and practices to avoid or mitigate the effects of natural disasters, but these are often poorly documented and little understood. People living in the Shimabara Peninsula, around Mt. Unzen, have repeatedly overcome serious volcanic events. In the Unzen Volcanic Area Global Geopark, passing on their knowledge and experience to future generations is a priority.

The area around Unzen volcano was the first national park in Japan; designated in 1934, its natural environment has been conserved since then. It was recognized as a new member of the Global Geoparks Network in 2009. The Unzen Volcanic Area Global Geopark covers the entire area of the Shimabara peninsula in Nagasaki prefectureand includes three cities: Shimabara, Unzen, and Minami Shimabara-city. About 150,000 people live in the only geopark with an active volcanoe, hence its theme: ‘the coexistence of people and active volcano’.

Tectonically active regions like the Japanese Archipelago are repeatedly and adversely impacted by geohazards such as earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions. The resulting geo- and bio-diversity is extremely rich: the Shimabara Peninsula counts with outstanding landscapes, hot springs, and fertile agricultural soil. It is surrounded by a hotbed of biological diversity teeming with delicious fish and shellfish, sea plants and minerals.

There is a culture of coexistence between the active volcano and the community, with cycles of eruptions, recovery and abundance. In 1792, the sector collapse of an old lava dome triggered strong earthquakes, in one of the worst volcanic disasters in Japan. About 15,000 people were killed by the resulting tsunami. In 1990, Unzen Volcano became active after 200 years of dormancy. In 1991, pyroclastic surges containing giant hot ash clouds took 43 lives. The eruption continued for four and half years, inflicting significant damages to the economy, agriculture, and tourism in the peninsula. Twenty years later, the area has recovered. Various sabo (erosion and sediment control) activities have been carried out to minimize the effects of volcanic events, and the Geopark is dedicated to geohazard education.

The burned school building and destroyed houses of the last eruption have been preserved just as they were. Now, these facilities are widely used for local disaster prevention educational programmes in Japan. Several itineraries have been designed to show the park’s exceptional features and educate visitors. One of the itineraries retraces the Shimabara Catastrophe (1791) and another focuses on the Heisei Eruption (1990-1995).

The Unzen Volcanic Area Global Geopark is hosting the 5th International UNESCO Conference on Geoparks on 12-15 May 2012. ‘In the next conference, we want to share our experiences in volcanic disasters and recovery projects with you, because disaster prevention is one of the main themes of our geopark.’ said Shuichiro Yokota, Chair of the Unzen Volcanic Area Geopark Promoting Office. ‘A tsunami disaster triggered by a major earthquake on 11 March 2011 caused numerous deaths and severe damage to the Pacific coast of Tohoku. In light of this disaster, I felt a strong necessity to share our lessons from the volcanic disaster at Unzen to prepare for future natural disasters and to save lives.’ Researchers in various fields including earth science, global environment, tourism, resources, and regional economy, as well as executives and those affiliated with geoparks are invited to participate in this conference. it provides an opportunity to strengthen the cooperation among participants to foster greater understanding of the Earth and its processes through geoparks.

A Global Geopark is a unified area with geological heritage of international significance, where that heritage is being used to promote the sustainable development of the local communities who live there. It is a pre-requisite that all Global Geoparks develop and operate educational programmes to spread awareness of our geological heritage and its links to other aspects of our natural, cultural and intangible heritages.

UNESCO gives its ad hoc support to national Geopark initiatives which are coordinated through the Global Geoparks Network (GGN) where national geological heritage initiatives benefit fully from their membership of a global network of exchange and cooperation. The network was launched in 2004 with UNESCO’s support to encourage cooperation between geological heritage experts and practitioners.

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