Don’t you hate it when you see the film of a book that you enjoyed and they have missed out lots of the best bits? Or even worse, the director has made changes to the original story for ‘artistic’ reasons? Well, that’s how I feel about the news coverage today about a report into the threat to the UK from big lava eruptions in Iceland.
Claire Witham of the Met Office, is giving a presentation at the European Geosciences Union conference in Vienna this week about impact on the UK of such an eruption. It’s serious stuff. Last October, the British Geological Survey released a report (compiled by Sue Loughlin, Head of Volcanology) that describes what we know about such eruptions:
- The 1783-84 Laki event erupted over 14 km3 of basalt lava, releasing millions of tonnes of sulphur dioxide gas that polluted the atmosphere across northwest Europe for months with sulphuric acid fog.
- It’s estimated that it killed over 20,000 people in Europe at the time, and new studies suggest that if it happened again today that figure could be 140,000. Furthermore, the acid damages crops and can poison waterways.
- We’ve had two Laki-sized eruptions in the past 1,000 years (Laki 1783, Eldgjá 934), and eleven smaller ones (but only two of these erupted >1 km3 magma), so another such eruption is possible in our lifetimes.
Nevertheless, the reality wasn’t exciting enough for the mainstream media, who have reported this as some kind of imminent apocalypse. In lots of science communication, there is a problem with dumbing-down of information. In volcanology, the problem is sexing up.
Media changes to the story for ‘artistic reasons’
- A number of reports introduced a new character, the supervolcano. The term doesn’t appear anywhere in the original report. In fact, as Erik Klemetti described, it doesn’t appear very often in any real scientific papers. And when it does, it’s mainly to do with explosive eruptions of over 1000 km3 of pumice and ash. Laki produced 14 km3 of lava, so wouldn’t even come close!
- Another favourite baddie, climate change, also gets a role in the media story. The summer of 1783 was unusually hot in Europe, and the winter of 1783-84 was very cold across the whole northern hemisphere. Scientists at the time suggested that there might be a connection, but more recent work shows that (surprise, surprise) things are a bit more complicated than that. The BGS report itself says that it is not possible to prove that the extreme weather was linked to the eruption.
- No self-respecting blockbuster is complete without a massive body count. So even though the report states that the eruption killed 60% of Icelandic livestock, the International Business Times inflates that figure to 80%. Even better, the Daily Star posted their report under the headline: TOXIC SMOG FROM ICELANDIC VOLCANO COULD KILL MILLIONS.
- Finally, no story about a hypothetical future risk gets as many clicks as one with immediate danger. Hence the the Daily Star opening with the words “Ministers are on red alert…” This is the same reason that the Mail Online recently converted an Icelandic volcanologist’s gentle reminder that Hekla is still an active volcano (and you should think twice about climbing it) into “major eruption could happen within days and hit air travel”. That was on the 19 March, and still nothing has happened. The BGS report says that, on average, we can expect a fissure eruption of >1 km3 lava once every 270 years or so.
Sources of good information about large-magnitude fissure eruptions in Iceland.
- The best information comes straight from the horse’s mouth. You can read the full report into large magnitude fissure eruptions on the British Geological Survey website here, including an executive summary that you can download here. It contains all the great stuff that was left out of the news reports, such as descriptions of the impacts at the time and of Icelandic fissure eruptions in general.
- The Cabinet Office National Risk Register of Civil Emergencies, which now contains a Laki-type event, is here.
- A great blog post by Anja Schmidt, who calculated the 140,000 figure, compares a Laki-type event to the recent air pollution experienced in the UK.
- For a popular science overview of the Laki eruption in the context of other Icelandic and worldwide eruptions, check out Island on Fire by Alex Witze and Jeff Kanipe. A review by David Pyle, Professor of Volcanology, is here.
- Update 1 May: Jonathan Amos on the BBC News has posted the first sensible article covering this, including interviews with Claire Witham, Alex Witze and Jeff Kanipe.
If you’ve still not had your fill of volcanoes for the day, you can also try yourself against my game, Soup or Volcano, or read my last media-based rant, Ash cloud travel insurance / why scientists should blog.
This afternoon I gave an interview on BBC Radio Scotland, who wanted some comments on the report. I’ve uploaded it onto YouTube so you can hear it below. Can you spot the typo on the slide?
Update: 30 April 2013
The original version of this post incorrectly stated that Sue Loughlin from the BGS presented their report in Vienna, as was reported by the International Business Times. Claire Witham from the Met Office is leading the study into the impact on the UK and presented the results in Vienna.