‘Systems of prediction, preparation and prevention are so well developed, catastrophe is avoidable.’ In the context of volcanic hazards, discuss the extent to which you agree with this view. (40 marks)

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As this is a 40-mark question, I will not attempt to provide a full-length sample answer, but instead offer guidance on how to structure this type of question. More detailed case studies and content advice would be provided if this question were to be discussed during a tutorial.

I would recommend the student spend around 5 minutes planning, 50 minutes writing, and 5 minutes to read through and make corrections at the end.


All 40-mark essays should begin with a clear and concise introduction, defining key terms, and outlining the main paragraphs, before indicating which side of the argument the student more strongly supports.

For this essay, the student should include a definition of a ‘volcanic hazard’, stating that these can include hazards such as lava flows, ash clouds, debris avalanches etc, and secondary hazards such as damage to gas and electricity infrastructure resulting in fires. These hazards can have social, economic and environmental implications.

The introduction should briefly introduce the scientific and technological advancements that have radically improved our understanding of volcanic hazards over the last few decades, and how preparation schemes, education, and prevention tactics have arguably transformed the ways in which humans can mitigate volcanic catastrophes.

This question states ‘discuss the extent’, which infers there are two sides to this argument. This strongly suggests a student should consider how catastrophe in many instances is not avoidable, and the second part of the essay should explore this.

It is recommended for students to decide which side of the argument they will take from the beginning, so that the essay has a clear direction from the start, as vague responses are often not marked as highly. Although I personally would argue that catastrophe is not avoidable, students can chose either opinion, and will be marked highly if they provide sufficient evidence and a coherent argument. 

Catastrophe is avoidable

The first section of the essay should discuss how scientific advancements, prediction systems and preparation has enabled scientists to forecast eruptions, resulting in evacuations. This, alongside education programmes, and volcano emergency kits, has reduced mortality rates.

At least one case study should be used to support this statement, providing statistics of evacuation, and how catastrophe has been avoided. A good example is the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo, where 60,000 people were successfully evacuated due to the prediction systems in place. (This is quite a common example, so a student would really stand out if they did a small amount of extra reading to find a further case study to draw upon).

Examples can also be used of how lava flows have been diverted, such as during Etna’s 1983 eruption, where rubble barriers and explosions were used to change the lava’s flow. This reduced social and economic damage – if the lava had not been diverted, the estimated damage is predicted at $5-25 million. 

These examples suggest that the catastrophes associated with volcanic hazards can be avoidable.(At the end of each paragraph, students should link their answer back to the question. Although this may seem repetitive, it shows the examiner that the student has a clear focus and that the material discussed is directly relevant).

Catastrophe is not always avoidable

Although there is evidence that some volcanic catastrophes have been mitigated due to prevention, preparation and prediction strategies, this is not always the case.

Students should emphasise how the ability of a country to prevent and manage volcanic hazards is strongly dependent on its economic development.

For example, the total cost of the Mount Etna lava diversion was $3 million – poorer countries would not have the capability to conduct such a large-scale prevention operation. Even though the Philippines is not a particularly affluent, the extensive monitoring of the volcano was due to the U.S army base being stationed there. Many poor countries cannot afford the scientific equipment and staff to monitor volcanoes.

In this way, there is a large variation in the capacity for countries to prevent, prepare for and predict volcanic hazards.

Students could also draw attention to the fact that even with scientific monitoring, volcanic eruptions can be highly unpredictable and uncertain. The case study of Montserrat can be used, with the unpredicted lateral blast causing unforeseen environmental and economic damage. Students can also acknowledge that volcanoes differ in magnitude, timing, and duration. This means that strategies successfully deployed for one volcano will not necessarily be applicable to another (case studies should be used to support this).

Students can show an understanding for the capacity and willingness of people to cope with volcanic hazards – many people, despite being warned about the risks, choose to remain in their homes, or live in high risk areas. Consideration for the motivations behind this, such as fertile soils on the volcanic slopes in Italy, or economic inability to relocate, could be included.


The student should briefly summarise their key points, acknowledging that there are two sides of the argument. However, even if the technology and preparation strategies do exist, they are not equally available across countries or regions, and the economic development of a country strongly influences its capability to prevent volcanic catastrophes.

If possible, the student can make a short statement considering the future implications of volcanic hazards, suggesting that scientific innovation, or increasing affordability of monitoring equipment, may enable volcanic hazards to be less catastrophic. However, volcanoes are inherently natural and unpredictable phenomena, and it is unlikely that people will ever be able to truly tame or control these events.

Top Tips:

Plan the essay before writing, having a clear idea of what side of the argument you will more strongly support

Use at least one case study per paragraph. If possible, do a small amount of extra reading to move beyond the case studies provided in the text book, or at least Google extra statistics for the case studies

At the end of each paragraph, link the answer back to the question

In the conclusion, attempt to consider the wider implications of the question, or how future advancements/innovations/changes may impact this field of study  

Olivia M.

About the author

is an online A Level Geography tutor with MyTutor studying at Cambridge University

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