Did you know that pineapples are genetically more similar to a person than any other fruit? And that the aurora, if you get close enough to touch it, causes tingles in your tummy a bit like butterflies? And that, if you’re being precise, the singular form of the word ‘sheep’ is ‘shoop’?
Sadly, none of this is true – no matter how much I want the word ‘shoop’ to be real. But it turns out that if you say something with enough confidence on the Internet, people can readily and unquestioningly accept it as true.
Misinformation and the viral phenomenon of (genuinely) fake news are deeply troubling infestations; they have no clear solutions and only get more troublesome by the day as those that manufacture them become more pernicious, clever and devious in their deployment. But old habits die hard, and even in the age of deepfakes and government-sanctioned campaigns, nonsense frequently still arrives in the form of clickbait: fearmongering headlines screeching into your face about how the world is going to end any second now once those cowardly asteroids get their act together and finally put us all out of our collective misery.
The unending myriad of ways in which all those peddlers of doom sneaking about on social media or those terrifically terrible tabloids can recycle old rumours, hoaxes or falsehoods about the world in order to frighten people into clicking through is perversely impressive. This capability also extends to run-of-the-mill geological occurrences, which are taken out of context or otherwise transmogrified into something that is designed to unnecessarily unnerve people.
This has a multitude of effects, none of them positive: many readers come to suspect that scientists have no idea what they are doing, or that they in fact do know what’s what but they are hiding the truth from the public; that the planet is a murder machine just waiting to slaughter as many people as often as possible; that everything is on the verge of erupting, quaking, flooding or otherwise exploding. It all brings to mind a passage from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:
“I thought,” he said, “that if the world was going to end we were meant to lie down or put a paper bag over our head or something.”
“If you like, yes,” said Ford.
“That’s what they told us in the army,” said the man, and his eyes began the long trek back down to his whisky.
“Will that help?” asked the barman.
“No,” said Ford and gave him a friendly smile.
So, in ignoble honour of the decade just passed, and just in time for the start of the 2020s, here are the top ten false, misleading or outrageously misguided statements, headlines or story angles – all related to geological shenanigans – that deserve to never again see the light of day.
1 – Yellowstone is doing a thing! Is it about to erupt?
It is not. I’ve covered this plenty of times before, but the TL;dr version of the story is this: it is an active volcanic system, as made very obvious by all those geysers and hot springs in Yellowstone National Park, so of course you it will experience ground movements, small quakes and changing geothermal activity. It would be incredibly weird if all that suddenly came to a stop.
Yellowstone is not only a huge volcanic system, but it is also one of the world’s most comprehensively monitored; it not only smothered in scientific instrumentation, but it also has its own personal volcano observatory, courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey. If it’s gearing up to erupt in a catastrophic manner, it will give off clear warning signals in advance, and scientists will sound the alarm. If they aren’t sounding the alarm, then it isn’t about to blow its top, no matter how many times the Daily Express goes All Caps on your peepholes and demands you to panic about the most innocuous of incidences. What’s that? A bison died? Uh oh, here comes a world-ending eruption!
No. Stop it. You’re embarrassing yourself.
Yellowstone has engaged in two rather massive eruptions in the past, along with a third not-quite-as-big-but-still-pretty-impressive kaboom. For most of its 2.1-million-year-long lifespan, it has preferred eruptions on a decidedly tinier scale: steam-driven explosions, and lava flows. If it were to erupt again, it is far more likely to be one of these comparatively insignificant events.
There is a very small chance that it could engage in one of those enormous eruptions again, which, sure, could cause a lot of fatalities in the park, blanket a large swath of North America in ash, and cause untold economic damage to the country and, eventually, the wider world due to indirect, knock-on effects. But even this cataclysm wouldn’t even come close to causing an apocalyptic collapse in civilisation. Humanity has persisted through so many climate perturbing, environmentally destructive eruptions in the past, and hey, we’re still around today, with more knowledge, technology and, heck, people than ever before.
There is, by the way, a rather decent chance that Yellowstone may never erupt again. Most of its magmatic supply is solid right now, and you need at least half of it to be molten in order to get an eruption. A fresh supply of magma from below could remelt this relatively frigid rock, but perhaps the halcyon days of Yellowstone and its eruptive irritability are already long gone.
Yellowstone supervolcano, despite the name, doesn’t deserve to be anyone’s bogeyman. Speaking of which…
2 – Something supervolcano something something! Are we all going to die?
No. Here’s the thing about supervolcanoes, one more time for those at the back: they probably aren’t what you think they are.
The term “supervolcano” – and “supereruption”, by default – didn’t get much attention in the media prior to the turn of the millennium. In 2005, it was popularized by a docu-drama produced by the BBC and the Discover Channel that focused on the consequences of a supereruption event taking place at Yellowstone.
According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), a supervolcano is any volcanic center that has explosively erupted at least 1,000 cubic kilometers (240 cubic miles) of fresh volcanic material in a sudden, violent manner – in a so-called supereruption – often producing a huge depression crater named a caldera. (This rules out flood basalts, large effusions of lava that can spend a million years or so scorching the earth and massively altering the climate.)
Yellowstone has had two such eruptions in the past 2.1 million years, so sure, it’s a supervolcano. A third otherwise impressive voluminous eruption came close to matching that all-important debris threshold, but it didn’t quite make the 240 cubic miles necessary for it to get that triple title. And, as aforementioned, for the vast majority of its storied life, Yellowstone has either produced lava flows or small steam blasts.
That is literally all there is to it. There are plenty of supervolcanoes all over the world, from Taupo in New Zealand to Toba in Indonesia. Some are potentially just dormant, whereas others are almost certainly extinct. Yellowstone is technically active, but seeing as that defines a volcanic system that has erupted just once in the past 12,000 years, that doesn’t mean much to us puny humans with our short lifespans.
It’s best to think about supervolcanoes as if they are Olympic athletes: just because they won the gold medal once or twice in the past, it doesn’t mean they’re going to keep on winning gold. Maybe they quit while they were ahead.
3 – There are several volcanic eruptions in the news! Are there more volcanoes erupting that ever before?
Nope. There are, roughly speaking, 40 volcanoes erupting on Earth at any given time. This is perfectly normal for a planet letting off steam.
You may take a glance online and begin to suspect that there are suddenly an unprecedented number of eruptions, but that’s only because they are being selectively reported on by media outlets. In general, the pattern of coverage is similar when it comes to newsworthy volcanic eruptions: one eruption takes place and is either a) spectacular but non-lethal or b) deadly, and it gets a lot of coverage; then other eruptions, which could be neither, take place and are reported on because editors decide that this additional, peripheral reporting will generate traffic while the first eruption is still near the forefront of everyone’s minds.
4 – I know when and where the next big earthquake will happen!
No you goddamn don’t. No-one can say with any degree of precision when or where the next massive earthquake will take place. If anyone claims that they can, they are either very misguided or they’re a liar.
Earthquakes take place on faults, so using historical data and current observations, scientists know to some degree which parts of the world will one day experience an earthquake. But they cannot say where exactly on any specific fault its next major rupture will transpire, or how powerful it will be, or exactly how much surface shaking it will generate.
Physical and mathematical laws, when paired with seismological data, do allow seismologists to forecast future earthquakes. But this isn’t the same as prediction, which involves specific locations, times, dates and seismic properties; forecasting, on the other hand, is the application of wide-ranging probabilities for those same variables. For example, per the U.S. Geological Survey, there is a 31% chance a magnitude 7.5 event will take place in the Los Angeles region within the next 30 years, with that rising to a 46% chance for a magnitude 7. For a magnitude 6.7 quake, it’s 60 percent.
The same forecasting method applies to aftershocks. Earthquakes don’t happen in isolation, but in clusters, as faults tend to keep jutting forwards after letting loose in a rather dramatic manner. The mainshock is the most powerful quake in that cluster, which means a mainshock can only be applied in retrospect. Anything weaker that happened before in the same cluster is known as a foreshock, and anything weaker afterwards is known as an aftershock.
Once again, using ongoing observational data and pre-existing knowledge of the fault(s) in question, scientists can make forecasts as to what kind of aftershock pattern is most likely in the coming days following a mainshock, with various percentages applied to different scenarios. There is always a small but non-zero chance that a more powerful quake will strike in the days after the mainshock; if so, that original mainshock becomes a foreshock, and the new quake becomes the mainshock.
Again, nothing here is predicted, only forecast. Knowing that difference will do you well when it comes to telling the difference between quake-based quackery and the reality of scientific uncertainty online.
5 – I know when and where the next big eruption will happen!
Beep beep! My bullshit detector’s going off again.
Volcanologists would love to know exactly when the next eruption on any given volcano will occur, and what type of eruption it will be, and how long it will go on for. But they can’t claim to know any of that. Using the best available data, they can produce forecasts (as seismologists do with earthquakes), but that’s about it.
Some volcanoes sometimes give off clear warning signs at some point in time before their eruptions get going, but the presence of those warning signs, or lack thereof, depends on the eruption style: some can happen with no warning whatsoever, whereas others cause the volcano to change shape, get hotter at the surface, become gassier, shake a lot more, and so on. And some volcanoes that are giving off warning signs are not being monitored thoroughly enough to give scientists the capability to sound the alert, should the need arise.
Volcanology is a very young science, youthful enough that even fundamental properties of volcanoes still elude scientists. It will probably surprise you that for many volcanoes, how much magma they contain – a key value that determines their capability to erupt – remains a mystery. That means that some punter on Twitter who decides to have a go at volcanology won’t crack the case before volcanologists themselves do, so please, for the love of Vulcan, don’t pay them any attention.
6 – The Ring of Fire is about to do something crazy!
This loop, which surrounds much of the vast Pacific Ocean, features constantly shifting, sliding and grinding plate boundaries, all with their own network of segregated or closely spaced faults. This continuous activity means that 75 percent of the world’s (known) volcanic activity and 90 percent of the world’s earthquakes take place along it.
Crucially, none of the eruptions that take place on the Ring of Fire are related to each other. And for the most part, none of the earthquakes are either. (There is a chance that some earthquakes can trigger volcanic eruptions if they are literally right on top of one another, but this is a very contentious subject with no concrete answers available at present.)
It is, however, possible for an earthquake on one fault to trigger another on a nearby fault. But the rule of thumb is that this is only possible if the second fault is no further away than three to four times the length of the original fault that ruptured. In other words, they have to be really close to each other and incredibly energetic to have an effect – making this a situation that simply cannot apply along the colossal scale of the Ring of Fire. A temblor in California will never initiate another in Japan, or vice versa.
The Ring of Fire is, in all honesty, a pretty dumb term that should be unceremoniously buried. It doesn’t mean anything to scientists, and is frequently misused by the media, even by those with the best intentions. Let’s dump it in the sea and never look back.
7 – An asteroid is about to fly very close to Earth! Will it hit us?
No, because that’s not what “fly very close to Earth” even means. Sure, space rocks hurtle into Earth all the time. They often disintegrate in the atmosphere, explode in the sky or even make it all the way to the surface – at least, what’s left of them. Many more stay out there in the darkness minding their own business.
Vary rarely, they can hit the planet and cause a fair bit of damage. Sometimes they are large enough and are moving quickly enough to obliterate cities or even, on exceedingly rare occasions, cause mass extinctions.
Naturally, scientists are keeping an eye out for these objects. They cannot spy every threatening asteroid out there, nor can they yet stop them from hitting us. But they are working on it, and there is no chance that a screamy shouty tabloid, with all the histrionics in the world, will correctly announce that one is about to hit the planet before scientists do.
8 – Volcanoes should be cancelled because all they do is kill people.
As has probably not escaped your attention as of late, volcanoes do sometimes kill people. Although the manner in which they prove to be lethal varies considerably from place to place, deaths these days tend to transpire via unpredictable eruption styles and their direct and indirect effects; these include, but aren’t limited to, the steam-driven blasts that took place at New Zealand’s White Island/Whakaari volcano earlier this month, or collapse-triggered tsunamis, like the one generated by the partial self-destruction of Indonesia’s sea-situated Anak Krakatau this time last year.
But, for most of their lifetime, active volcanoes are enormously beneficial to the 800 million people than live within 100 kilometres of them. Despite the occasional dangerous and deadly incident, residents and visitors would agree that volcanoes bring far more social, economic, spiritual, adventurous and aesthetic benefits to the table. For most of those living in their shadows, volcanoes are home, plain and simple. You may think the risks of an eruption aren’t worth it, but volcano dwellers may look at your city, one far from any active volcanic landforms, and wonder how you put up with so much air pollution, flooding, crime, trash or climate change-exacerbated hurricanes.
9 – Smoke is coming out of the volcano!
No it isn’t. What you are looking at is volcanic ash (the rapidly cooled, glassy products of fresh lava) and condensed gases, mostly water vapour. Smoke is what you get when something is undergoing combustion, like a tree, and carbon products are lifting off the wood, driven by their own buoyancy or dragged away by the wind.
10 – A volcano is overdue for an eruption.
This phrasing tends to be applied to volcanoes that haven’t erupted in a very long time, like Yellowstone. People look at its two supervolcanic eruptions 2.1 million years ago and 640,000 years ago, and throw in the not-quite-supervolcanic-but-still-pretty-gnarly eruption 1.3 million years ago for good measure. Well, they say, there is 800,000 years between the first and second, and 660,000 between the second and third. So with 640,000 years since the last display of volcanic rage, aren’t we almost nearly kinda overdue for another one?
Nope. Volcanoes are never overdue for an eruption, because they aren’t pregnancies. They are not dental check ups. They are not your credit card bills or your college essay. Volcanoes are not predictable, nor do they operate like clockwork or abide by deadlines. They don’t have a nine-to-five type of cycle.
This is especially true for volcanoes that erupt in a major manner so infrequently over such a long timeframe. If we are being generous and we include the not-quite-supervolcanic eruption in there, we have just three data points for Yellowstone and its prominent eruptions – nowhere near enough to identify patterns or make sweeping conclusions.
Claiming an eruption is overdue is just as meaningful as suggesting a cloud is overambitious.