The Right Way to Write About the Volcanic Apocalypse
The world wide web is a tricky place. There are many, many (many) places you can get information, and the quality of said information runs from fine organic truffles harvested sustainable to a giant pile of rotting whale carcass. Now, how do you sift through these sources—and if you are a science writer/communicator, how do you make it both easier and more exciting for people to read/listen/watch about science?
Example: Just the other day, I ran across an article in the Daily Mail that had some poor soul speculating on the impact of all the volcanoes on Earth erupting in unison. Right after cleaning up the coffee I spit up in disgust (at the concept, mind you, not the expert), I went on a Twitter tirade about this kind of “science” coverage in places like the Daily Mail (see also: Express). They tend to lean heavily on as many apocalypses as possible to get people to click on their wares, even though there is absolutely no chance (or way) for all the volcanoes on Earth to erupt in the first place. Speculating on such a topic in what is presented as a science article is degrading to the scientists who work in a field and confuses the general public into thinking that it might actually be possible. You might as well write an article about the ramifications of all squirrels gaining laser beam eyes or the Moon really being an egg for a giant space butterfly.
However, during the Twitter discussion someone pointed me to the Flash Forward podcast that recently delved into the exact same topic! In my haste (never do things in haste, folks! Lesson: #nevertweet), I lambasted the podcast for propagating such myths and how it really wasn’t helping science communication to go down such absurd roads. Thankfully, one of the people interviewed on the podcast (that being Jessica Ball) clued me into the fact that the podcast presents the ideas as science fiction and not science fact, inviting scientists to muse about the hypothetical results of all the volcanoes erupting in a purely fantastical manner. In this way, the listeners can get real science on volcanic hazards and eruption impacts while satiating their need for apocalypse.
Now, why was (and am) I so ticked off by the Daily Mail article but could come to peace and acceptance of the Flash Forward podcast? Here, it is all about how you sell the product. They are really both doing the same thing (and let’s ignore for the moment how the Daily Mail blatantly stole the idea from Flash Forward): talking to experts in the field about a completely impossible event. However, Flash Forward does it in that context of science fiction where the listener knows the main theme is not science fact (think something like Randall Munroe’s What If series). The Daily Mail, on the other hand, makes no such clarification and instead presents the same topic as science fact instead of the pure fiction that it is. The first allows listeners to learn about volcanoes in a fun way, the second misleads readers into thinking that such an event could happen.
OK, so, you’re thinking I’m making a big deal out of this, right? Well, I am, but for a point: Science communication is tricky. Here on Eruptions, I try to keep things as based in reality as possible. Sure, I wander sometimes into topics of fantasy and conjecture, but always remind folks of the really real world. You can be communicating the exact same things, but the context in which you wrap the topic can dramatically change its usefulness in spreading scientific knowledge.
Now, on this topic: Why couldn’t all the volcanoes erupt at once? Well, mostly, short of destroying the planet in a massive collision, there is no massive source feeding all volcanoes on Earth. Magma is localized and isolated at each volcano, although in a few cases, like the 1912 eruption of Novarupta in Alaska, a few volcanoes might have shared a magma source. However, there is no “common” magma body feeding all the volcanoes in the Cascades. We do find evidence of magma lurking underneath volcanic arcs, like the recent discovery of magma under the Taupo Volcanic Zone in New Zealand. That magma might extend laterally for kilometers, but it is really a local feature (and a very common feature in many very active arcs like the North Island of New Zealand). Even if you argue that all the magma underneath the Taupo Volcanic Zone is really a single magmatic system (which it really isn’t), it is definitely not connected in any way to other volcanic arcs like Indonesia or the Philippines.
Without that common source, you could never get all the volcanoes on Earth primed to erupt at the same time—tectonics just doesn’t work that way. The magma is being generated from different processes like decompression of the mantle or addition of water to the mantle by subduction. There isn’t really a conceivable way to get all those volcanoes (and let’s even pretend to not consider the mid-ocean ridge system as a massive volcano) at the verge of eruption.
Really, if you’re looking for a disaster scenario for people versus volcanoes, try thinking about a flood basalt, where 10,000 cubic kilometers of lava erupt. Or maybe a repeat of the largest explosive eruption known, the Fish Canyon Tuff in Colorado that expelled 5,000 cubic kilometers of volcanic debris. Those events have happened on Earth and will likely happen again sometime in the Earth’s remaining existence. That being said, there are plenty of incredibly awesome ways to talk about volcanoes without invoking the destruction of us all—it frustrates me that we seem to have to go this way to get people’s attention.
Any way we can get the average citizen to think more about science, and think about it critically, the better. The interwebs can make that goal tricky because there is a level of knowledge you need to evaluate the quality of the science being presented. That’s where basic science literacy comes in. Making sure we all get a rigorous scientific background, or at least the ability to identify good versus bad presentations of science, is critical for the future of our civilization.
(Oh yes, and #nevertweet).
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