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Erik’s Volcano Nightmare: Why can’t the media get science right?

Usually I’m a pretty reasonable person. However, over the past day, various items in the media have begun to drive me mad. Maybe I’ve been watching too much of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares but I am bleeping irritated with how little fact checking and research some parts of the media have been doing when it comes to reporting on volcanic activity. I mean, just yesterday there were no less than three egregious articles or images floating around in the news (and this doesn’t even get into the fear-mongering)

AFP:Hekla is not Heimaey Island. The only island Hekla is on is Iceland itself (see top left). And that volcano isn’t even Hekla, it is Eldfell. I think the Volcanism Blog handled this best with Ralph’s simple illustration of the problem.

Reuters:Hekla did not erupt this year (see image on side). In fact, the last eruption was in 2000, which was 11 years ago. In fact, no Icelandic volcano was erupting in “February of this year”. Or last year. Or the year before. {Hat tip to Eruptions reader Raving for finding this one.}

CBC: The CBC might be trying for some record in inaccuracies, misconceptions and just plain loopiness in their new post titled “FAQ: The Destructive Power of Volcanoes“. In Ramsayian style, let’s disassemble the problems.

CBC: April 24, 79 AD. Mount Vesuvius begins a 19-hour eruption that would kill more than 10,000 people and wipe out two Roman towns.

I have no idea where they got the date “April 24”. Although we don’t know the exact date, the prevailing idea is that the eruption occurred sometime in August-October of 79 A.D., based on how wind effected the dispersal of tephra and the historical record of the time. In fact, the most cited date is August 24, 79 A.D., so CBC, you’re only 4 months off.

CBC: The horror of that eruption was caught in the faces of people who were entombed in lava.

Sorry, no lava here. Just tephra (ash and volcanic debris).

CBC: A volcano is a geological formation, usually a conical mountain, that forms when molten rock, called magma, flows up from the interior of the Earth to the surface. Magma finds its way upwards along fissures or cracks in the planet’s crust and bursts out onto the surface, resulting in a volcano.

Although not entirely wrong, it is an incredibly awkward way to describe a volcano. For those of you scoring at home, a volcano is anywhere where lava erupts on the surface of the Earth. Seems simple enough to me. Many volcanoes might be a conical edifice, but I bet a majority aren’t close to being a “cone”. (However, it is still better than the FEMA definition of a volcano.)

CBC: The Earth’s crust is composed of 15 tectonic plates that float on the molten layer beneath them.

How many times to I have to say this: the MANTLE IS NOT MOLTEN. It might have pockets of melt and it might behave like a plastic but it is not MOLTEN. Maybe this sign will help you remember:

Stand up for what you believe

If you want to know more about the state of the mantle, check out this post on Georneys. I’ll give you a hint: THE MANTLE IS NOT MOLTEN.

CBC: The solid crust is forced down into the extremely hot molten layer, where the heat and friction turns the solid rock into magma.

This is their description of why rocks melt. If I got this on an examine, I wouldn’t give it a lick of credit. Rocks melt for three reasons: increasing temperature, decreasing pressure and addition of water. At mid-ocean ridges, buoyant mantle rises and melts (called adiabatic melting as the temperature of the rock doesn’t change). At subduction zones, the downgoing slab heats up and releases water, and this addition of water to the overlying mantle then causes the mantle to melt. Think of this like adding salt to ice to get it to melt at a lower temperature. Only in rare situation does rock melt merely from increasing heat, usually only where magma is in contact with wall rocks.

CBC: A volcano erupts in one of two ways: either the magma is forced up to the surface or the rising magma heats water trapped within the surface, causing an explosion of steam.

This oversimplifies eruptions too much – yes, when magma makes it to the surface, usually due to the buoyancy of the magma (thanks to its density contrast with the surrounding rocks and/or the bubbles in the magma). However, there are a lot more variations than just “magma to surface” and “steam explosion”.

CBC: The heat generated by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79 was believed to have reached temperatures approaching 400 degrees Celsius.

At some point, yes, it was 400C. However, when the ash and tephra erupts, it is closer to 700-800C (or more).

CBC: That was hot enough to boil the brains of people caught in the lava flow and blow the tops of their heads off.

I’m sorry, did someone let their 7-year old write some of the copy?

CBC: Eruptions are commonly measured in terms of tonnage of “ejecta” produced. Unlike an earthquake, where there is a definite correlation between damage and the earthquake magnitude scale, volcano measurement does not reflect damage.

Wow, this is a doozy. Not only does this not make any sense, it is wrong. The volcanic explosivity index (VEI) used to compare volcanic eruptions compares VOLUMES of tephra (ejecta), not tonnage (mass). As for the statement about “unlike earthquakes”, not only is that wrong for earthquakes, but the general statement for volcanoes is untrue. The size/magnitude of any geologic event is only a small piece of the equation when trying to assess how much damage it might cause.

CBC: Until relatively recently, when an orbiting satellite was used in a test to monitor hot spots on the planet’s surface, scientists did not have a reliably accurate method to predict volcanoes. The new monitoring system processes data from two geo-stationary environmental satellites, enabling scientists to monitor volcano-prone areas up to four times per hour. The system accurately predicted the November 1998 eruption of the Popocatépetl volcano on the outskirts of Mexico City and an eruption on the Galapagos Islands chain in September 1998.

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Honestly, I think they just made this one up. I tried to find any reference to these “two geo-stationary environmental satellites” that are monitoring all these volcanic areas and I came up with nothing. Maybe some of you know this better. As for the two cases listed, I can’t find any evidence of these either – only that the 1998 eruption of Popocatepetl might have been predicted by Bernard Chouet using seismic methods. My guess is that the anonymous CBC author confused prediction with monitoring (or maybe read something off the back of a cereal box).

This brings up another good point: Media, always cite your sources! If there is a system of satellites, NAME THEM. Give us a link or reference to find any more information. If this system did, in fact, predict two eruptions, there should be a scientific paper published showing how it was done.

“The VEI compares volumes, not tonnage, you *&*^”

Why is “journalism” like this acceptable when it comes to science? I mean, I’m sure it happens in other fields, but this would be the equivalent of me writing something like this about baseball:

“The Seattle Mariners were founded in 1777 and are the first major league baseball team in Oregon. Their home field, Slamco Field, has a retractable crystalline roof. The team is lead by Cy Young winner Larry Bernandez and Korean star Ichiro Mitsubishi. The Mariners last won the World Series in 2001 after winning a record 116 games.” (Compare to the real facts of the Mariners).

I bet an article like that gets 1000 times more angry responses because we’re more concerned about getting our sports history right than getting science right in the media. This is not to say there aren’t people out there doing science well in the media – but when major news sources can’t even identify a volcano correctly or even the basics of how it works, well, we know we have a problem.

This is when we need to let the media know that disseminating bad, wrong science is not acceptable anymore and people notice. If this bothers you as much as I do, contact the CBC and tell them. Articles like this from the CBC are a symptom of the greater problem with science illiteracy in the general public – along with the laziness of writers and editors in terms of getting the facts right. It shouldn’t happen and we shouldn’t let it happen.

Top left: Hekla. It is a volcano in Iceland. Look it up.


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