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Certainty vs. Uncertainty: What “Supervolcano” teaches us about science and society

You put super in front of eruption and I don’t imagine it makes it better.” – FEMA Sec. Wendy Reiss in Supervolcano.

This week in my Freshman Volcanoes class here at Denison, we lauched 2005’s Supervolcano, a so-called docudrama about a hypothetical eruption at Yellowstone Caldera. Now, the film itself has its ups-and-downs and having seen it as many times as I have, I still notice new themes that appear in the film. This time what really jumped out at me was the struggle between certainty and uncertainty at all levels, but mostly between science and society. While science is, for lack of a better world, comfortable with the fact that there is also uncertainty in our predictions and understanding of natural events, society wants the opposite from science: they want certainty. 

The as-yet-to-be-invented Vergil technology to image the Yellowstone caldera, as seen in ‘Supervolcano’

Some examples from the film:

  • The film begins with a routine press conference where YVO director Rick Lieberman is asked by the media he would “rule out” a supereruption at Yellowstone.
  • When the first activity begins, Rick has to decide on what might be occurring and is again confronted by the media about “ruling out” a supereruption.
  • There is an internal struggle between Rick and the deputy at YVO, Jock, about the use of a model (perceived certainty) and observation that reaches a crescendo when Jock accuses Rick of “being spooked by a video game.
  • Later in the film, Jock confronts Rick again after the signs begin to point towards an eruption. Jock thinks they should go public with the information, but Rick wants to test the models again to make certain that they are right with their prediction, summing it up as needing to be prepared with facts if he has to “go on TV and tell Joe Six-Pack that the end of the world is nigh.
  • The government officials, especially in the scene where Rick is directly to say the eruption would be small to prevent panic, want Rick to have a clear idea of exactly what the volcano will do when there is no way to tell. It is clear that the uncertainty is what the government saw as the root of public panic.
  • Rick uses phrases like “conservative margin of error” and “I don’t know” when asked specifically about what the caldera will do – not words that imply certainty. 
  • These are just a few of the examples of certainty versus uncertainty seen in the film. Even after the eruption begins in earnest, the conflict continues as the geologists attempt to determine how big and how long the eruption will be, FEMA struggles with how to help survivors and Rick, his brother-in-law and the Air Force technician tackle what to do – stay in their bunker or try to find help.

    Dashing YVO Scientist-in-charge Rick Lieberman from ‘Supervolcano’.

    The final decision about what to do about the survivors is a reversal of the roles, interestingly. The government wants to tell people to stay put and not go into the ash and “wait for rescue” that in all likelihood will never come. However, that is a plan that has the most certainty – people staying in their home might face less danger. Rick, on the other hand, advocates the “Walk to Life” plan, where survivors are told where to walk to in order to get help. It is inherently riskier, with people going out into a volcanic wilderness – a large uncertainty – but offers at least the chance that people can reach help before starvation. “Walk to Life” is chosen and in the end the head of FEMA says 7.3 million people were saved due to the plan.

    Map seen in the FEMA headquarters during the eruption of Yellowstone in ‘Supervolcano’.

    Now, maybe this is a much deeper look at the film than it merits, but I think the message is one that is very important for the public to understand: science is not certain. Unfortunately, this is the way it is taught in many schools, the science is fact and facts are uncertain. It makes for an easy dichotomy – science is the lack of uncertainty by understand the universe through facts. However, the key part of the relationship that is glossed over is that, by nature, the universe is not a certain place, so our understanding is couched in that uncertainty. We can try our best to definitely say anything about what a volcano might do, but our understanding has error, it has speculation, it as outright guesses to try to make sense of a highly unpredictable system. We do an incredible job in predictable volcanic events, but the 100% certainty of both magnitude and timing that society desires might be out of our reach.

    A few other “Supervolcano” comments:

    • At one point, Jock mentions that Yellowstone erupted 2000 kmin the first 5 days. So, what sort of eruption rate is that? If you do the math, that is ~16 billion m3 per hour, or 4.6 million m3 per second. Compare that with an explosive eruption at Kilauea (~26,4003 per second) or Pinatubo in 1991 (~210,0003 per second), it makes me wonder if the duration was too short. The overall eruption seems to take ~9 days in the film, but if we look at the duration of the eruption at Chaiten in Chile that has been going for almost 3 years now, it seems doubly short.
    • Some of the global effects seem a little extreme as well. Jock says that global temperatures fell as much as 20C in a few weeks, but estimates were that things would get better in “years”?
    • The real time data that the team used all seemed a bit too “real time” – a lot of interpretation occurs without just dumping it into a computer model.
    • Rick’s brother-in-law, the geologist and author Kenneth Wylie, is portrayed as an arrogant, wine-swilling, media grabber when he is promoting his book at Yellowstone “Super Bangs”. During an argument, Rick asks Kenneth if he’s actually ever been to Yellowstone and Kenneth says no – a pretty clear indictment of the speculative versus field-based discussions of geology – and a major challenge as the media-savvy so-called “experts” might just exacerbate the fear.
    • This isn’t really a review of Supervolcano, but rather just some rambling of thoughts I had while I watched the film – but what really stood out was that struggle between certainty and uncertainty. Even as Rick looks back on the eruption afterwards, he is racked by this – what if he had seen the signs earlier, could he have acted differently? It all implies that there was a “right decision” and in science, sometimes that certainty of the “right decision” is not a luxury to which we are privileged.

      Top left: One of the more chilling images from ‘Supervolcano’, where multiple eruption plumes are seen in the same field of view.


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