OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Relax, the world isn't ending.

It's been in the media, on sensationalizing blogposts, and on the social media. If you've missed these extravagant headlines, here's what they've looked like:

 

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It's a never-ending barrage. First it was Yellowstone. Now it's about the volcanoes in Indonesia and Russia erupting. Where did all this come from? There has been a lot in the news about 'volcano season' and how 'scientists are claiming there are more eruptions now than ever'. What’s going on?

 

Most of the current hype, especially over Yellowstone, started with a report released by the European Science Foundation, Group on Earth Observations, and the Geohazard Community of Practice, entitled “Extreme Geohazards: Reducing the Disaster Risk and Increasing Resilience”. This report deals with trying to get communities and authorities to think about preparing for extreme geohazard risks, such as from earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanoes.

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Figure above: The report by the ESF that has caused the media to go into a frenzy.

 

The media has taken it out of context, stating that it talks about an eruption from Yellowstone and how it will be happening soon. This is not true. Volcanic eruptions are not even the main focus of this report. We suggest you take a quick read of this report and judge for yourself. It is not too scientific a read and easy enough to be understood. For a good review of all the false claims made by the media, you should check out this write up by Erik Klemetti, a volcanologist.

 

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Figure above: Eruption at Colima volcano, Mexico, from Photovolcanica.

What about this idea of more volcanic eruptions happening now than ever? Or that Earth is in a ‘volcano season’? Don’t believe everything you read. Are there more eruptions now than ever? No. Is Earth in a volcano season? No. There isn’t even such a thing, and there haven’t been any expert scientists who have said this. So why is it that it seems there are more articles of volcanic eruptions now than before? Here are 4 reasons why this is happening:

 

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Figure above: World population increasing and projected numbers by Allianz.

1. The world population has increased. This means there are more populations living closer to volcanoes. As a result, people care more about an impending volcanic eruption. If you lived near a volcano, you’d like to know whether it was going to erupt at any point, wouldn’t you?

 

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Figure above: Some of the satellites that observe the Earth's surface by NASA and collaborative groups.

2. As time has gone by, technology has improved. Satellites, which provide global coverage, have increased in number as well as orbits around the Earth. As a result, we have been able to capture data, information, and images on remote volcanoes. In the past, these remote volcanoes were not of any consequence to people because we didn’t know they were there, let alone erupting!

 

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Figure above: Example of scientists mapping the social media impact of a volcanic eruption of Santiaguito in Guatemala on ESRI

3. Volcanic eruptions are not only dangerous, they’re interesting and exciting! As we become better connected through the internet and through travelling, the news of an erupting volcano is exciting news enough that we all want to share it. As such, a possible small eruption may become something of an internet sensation, because of our interest in it.

 

Figure above: Map of currently erupting volcanoes as found on VolcanoDiscovery 

4. The way volcanoes are reported in the media, a ‘new eruption’ may not be a new eruption at all. It could be a continuing eruption of an already active volcano, but is reported as being a ‘new eruption’. In terms of new eruptions, of volcanoes which have not been active becoming active, there hasn’t been a ‘dramatic increase’ or a ‘volcano season’, especially not according to scientists.

 

Now that you have a better understanding of why media reports make it seem like there is a volcanic eruption epidemic upon us, here are a couple of tips on how to read the news about volcanic eruptions objectively (like a scientist!):

 

1. Check the source of the article

Usually smaller websites and magazines tend to profit from readership, so the more views they get, the better for them. This results in 'exciting headlines' that serve to capture our attention. The actual facts that they report may be very few in number. Usually the more reputable news sources on the internet are from educational institutes (.edu websites), or websites that have scientists, and volcanologists, as their column writers (a good weekly feature by a real volcanologist and VolcanoWorld friend is Erik Klemetti, from wired.com; you can find updates from him also on the front page of VolcanoWorld).

 

2. Read between the lines

As mentioned above, the media thrives on readership numbers. The more, the merrier. And using big, exciting, descriptive words is one way of attracting viewership. To fully comprehend the article, you need to look past all the flowery adjectives and focus on only the facts. The facts make the article, and the facts are what you need when concerned with volcanic eruptions. Don’t get side-tracked by the colourful language!

 

3. Cross-check with other articles

It is always a good idea to read more than one article when searching for the truth, aka facts. If only one article has reported something of substantial impact, and no other media outlet has mentioned it, you might need to reconsider if what is being reported is fact. The best thing to do when coming across an article of a volcanic eruption is to Google it, and see what other articles and news come up. That way, you can cross-check facts, numbers, and cited people and sources. Sometimes, articles like to add random facts and tie them to other quotes by experts. Don’t accept anything blindly on faith, and question, question, question everything! Curiosity broadens the mind. It’s what science is all about!

 

4. Go straight to the primary origin of information. 

If a media article state 'scientists have said' and 'a recent journal article published states', a good pattern to develop is to Google the scientists or journal article mentioned. Usually, media reports will state names or titles of people or articles they are referencing. If they don't, then you should move on to another article. When it comes to articles in science journals, most journals are 'peer-reviewed'. This means that the article, the writing, the facts, and the data, have undergone strict and thorough review by other specialized scientists in the field to ensure that what is being published has not been doctored or falsified. Some volcanology journals that you should be able to trust include Bulletin of Volcanology, Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research (JVGR), Journal of Geophysical Research (JGR), Geology, and articles published in Nature, Nature Geoscience, or Science. [Click here for a list of some of the most important peer-reviewed journals in volcanology.] If a 'scientist' is quoted in an article and the name is given, you should Google the name and check to see if the 'scientist' is really a scientist. Sometimes, media news will take quotes from any professor, even if they are not experts in the field of volcanology.

 

5. If you really want to know about the status of a volcano, check the volcano observatory related to the volcano.

If you are located in the USA, there are several observatories, all tasked with monitoring active and/or dormant volcanoes in the country. If you’re not sure, check here. If you live in Europe, Asia, or IndoAustralia, check to see if your country has a volcano observatory. If you are interested in general reports of volcanoes worldwide, you could check on the Smithsonian Global Volcanism Program, or Volcano Discovery.

 

Happy reading!