I was tempted to go off on a rant this week, but common sense has got the better of me. It wouldn’t help.
What’s my problem? It’s that fighting the fires started by Kilauea isn’t happening only on the ground. It’s happening across social media. Scientists are the firefighters, trying to quench the increasing blazes of misinformation that are emerging about matters on the Big Island.
The Truth Is Out There
I hesitate to use the expression, “fake news,” but the nature of social media is that sensational=traffic and therefore the more sensational the headlines, the better. Facts (i.e. the truth) don’t come into it, and the result has been a lot of scare stories about all sorts of things related to volcanoes — including the idea that Kilauea could generate a huge tsunami, that there might be an eruption in the style, and on the scale, of Mt St Helen’s. Some are even saying that the eruption might trigger a chain reaction of other massive eruptions around the Pacific.
Anyone who has studied volcanoes or plate tectonics will know that these are sensational claims, but the problem is that most people haven’t extensively studied these subjects. It’s perhaps understandable that news and other media run with what they think people might want to read, but it certainly isn’t helpful.
Using authoritative sources to provide information should be a journalistic standard – and it isn’t as if sources of accurate information aren’t available. There are plenty of credible science sources around; you don’t have to look far. The best place to start is with the United States Geological Survey’s daily updates from the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. They’re the ones who know what’s going on.
The truth is out there and it’s in plain sight.
So what’s happening at Kilauea this week? Again, to save you the trouble of looking it up, I’m going to summarise the latest information from the USGS. No analysis — I suspect there will be opportunities for that later — but some rock solid (so to speak) information.
The flow of magma to the eastern rift is continuing, with spectacular ‘fire fountains’ erupting from the (currently 23) new fissures which have formed in the eastern rift since the beginning of this phase of the eruption. (The eruption itself has been ongoing for 35 years.) The magma is now increasingly fluid and the flow has reached the sea.
There has been some explosive activity at the summit, generating volcanic ash and gases (known as vog). Where the lava meets the sea there is an additional hazard called laze (a term I hadn’t heard before) which the USGS defines as “a corrosive seawater plume laden with hydrochloric acid and fine volcanic particles that can irritate the skin, eyes, and lungs”.
Activity at the volcano is ongoing and evolving, with the possibility of further eruptive activity.
I’m sorry if this isn’t as exciting as a mega-eruption that will trigger a series of natural disasters and plunge us all into a real-life disaster movie scenario. But it’s what’s happening. In Hawaii the hazards are real and serious, but they are, and will almost certainly remain, on a local scale.
What Else is Happening?
Another aspect of ‘reporting’ that made my hackles rise is the one which links Kilauea with other volcanoes to which it is tectonically unconnected. (Yes, it’s that triggering-the-ring-of-fire story.) So I thought it might be worth looking at what else is happening volcanically.
It may be surprising to some, but volcanic activity is a constant background feature of our planet. Volcanic activity is happening all the time, but it largely goes unreported, just as Kilauea’s decades-long eruption only attracted media attention when it entered a spectacular phase and began affecting residential property.
A look at the website Volcano Discovery, which keeps tabs on what’s happening around the world, is instructive. The website has a handy page on What’s Erupting, and if you take a look at it now, or at any other time, you might well be surprised. Currently, including Kilauea, there are 28 volcanoes erupting, at least 17 of them (depending on definition and excluding Kilauea) in the Ring of Fire.
That’s just those volcanoes which are erupting. If you want to extend the list to those volcanoes which are active — not a fixed definition but broadly describing a volcano which has erupted within the last 10,000 years and might erupt again — you’ll be even more surprised. I have a life, so I didn’t tot up all the numbers on the Volcano Discovery list, but if I tell you that there are over a hundred whose names begin with A, you might get an idea of the scale of things.
Active volcanism takes many forms and is worldwide. It occurs above and below the oceans, along coastal ranges, in the centre of continents. It is constant and ongoing. Volcanic activity is a key part of the Earth system and it creates one of the most basic things on our planet — the land itself. It’s spectacular and can be devastating — but it’s anything but unusual.