Natural disasters across the globe will become worse in the coming years, but we can prepare for the life-saving responses that will be needed, the head of a key humanitarian organisation said.

That is what brought dozens of highly skilled volunteers to the small Scottish island of Great Cumbrae on Friday.

Charity MapAction works alongside the United Nations helping guide the response to some the biggest disasters over the past two decades – but this weekend their focus is on a volcano simulation in Scotland.

The peaceful island was abuzz with action as the Field Studies Council outside of Millport became the base of an emergency operation centre.

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HeraldScotland: Chief Executive of MapAction Liz Hughes Chief Executive of MapAction Liz Hughes (Image: Colin Mearns)

Chief executive Liz Hughes said: “We are all going to face worse disasters in the next 15 years and that is the key headwind for all of us.

“It’s not going to get better however much we try. All the preparation we can do, all the training we can do, all the collaboration we can do is really important.”

A volcano eruption on Arran, dubbed the island of Ranar for the exercise, saw a cloud of ash spread across to the neighbouring peninsula – volunteers were told as part of the ‘Gilded Unicorn’ exercise.

Their task, much like it is when they respond to major disasters such as the recent earthquake in Turkey, is to map key information about the eruption and help emergency teams save lives.

MapAction will often be the first reference point for disaster relief organisations looking to help people on the ground.

Ms Hughes said: “I joined the organisation because I have been on the other side where you are trying to run response programmes in other countries and need information to do that.

“I have been in other places where I didn’t know the geography, didn’t know the language or even the alphabet and you have to decide how to provide aid.”

She added: “Maps tell a story; we are telling people what’s occurred.

“MapAction is providing insights, analysis and information that will help responders understand who is worst affected.”

HeraldScotland: For the sake of the exercise, many regions will revert to their historic names, whether Celtic, Latin or Anglo-Saxon, to help create a ‘country’ which is suitable for the areas where volunteers may be deployed in the future.For the sake of the exercise, many regions will revert to their historic names, whether Celtic, Latin or Anglo-Saxon, to help create a ‘country’ which is suitable for the areas where volunteers may be deployed in the future. (Image: Colin Mearns)

More than 70 volunteers, partners and staff members travelled to Cumbrae for the three-day simulation. The volunteers are all highly-skilled professionals trained in an array of tools needed by MapAction including data science and geographic information system (GIS).

Emerson Tan, from Bristol, said the charity has become an “essential” part of global emergency response over the 18-years he has worked with them.

The volunteer said: “There is not a major disaster in the last 20-odd years that the organisation has not been to.

“MapAction has gone from being a novelty into something that is considered essential, it is part of the system furniture.”

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HeraldScotland: Emerson Tan with some of the maps created by volunteersEmerson Tan with some of the maps created by volunteers (Image: Colin Mearns)

Without hours of mapping and analysis carried out by volunteers at disasters ranging from earthquakes to tsunamis, huge pockets of unmapped populations could go “unaddressed”, he added.

Another long-term volunteer Andrew Kesterton, originally from Scotland, said: “I think for a lot of us we have been doing this longer than our day job. You change your day job but we stick around for this.”

Ms Hughes attributed the dedication of the volunteers to three factors: a shared interest in the “geekery” of mapping, the “family feel” of the small organisation and importantly that they are all “passionate humanitarians”.

Felicity Cross, who lives in West Lothian, recently returned to deployments, travelling to Turkey in February while still juggling a full-time job and three children.

“I can see the difference that we can make,” she said.

“I have been in the field a few times and I have seen genuinely how we can help and how we have a role to play. I think there is a gap there and we can fill it.”

However, training is equally important as the work MapAction does in the midst of a disaster.

As well as training exercises for their own volunteers, the charity also helps train key bodies in countries across the globe.

HeraldScotland: Renee Babb, GIS & Remote Sensing SpecialistRenee Babb, GIS & Remote Sensing Specialist (Image: Colin Mearns)

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Renée Babb, a GIS specialist for the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA), travelled to Scotland to watch the training.

“In the past MapAction has been very integral to our emergency response,” she said. “The way they bring the mapping and information management to the table to help us visualise how an impact can be responded to.”

A training session on mapping flooding held in Guyana, meant that a year later country needed “minimal support” to respond to a flooding impacting seven of its ten regions.

Now in turn Ms Babb is helping train MapAction’s volunteers while also planning to take “ideas born out of this simulation exercise and try to implement them in the Caribbean”.

Ms Hughes emphasised that their trainings are an “exchange of ideas and experiences” – equally learning from the countries they travel to.

The Cumbrae simulation, funded by USAID’s Bureau of Humanitarian Affairs, will continue until Sunday helping the volunteers become better equipped for the disasters of tomorrow.