Scientists Fight Volcano Myths As Kilauea Erupts

Halemaumau crater at Kilauea volcano.
Photo: Getty

Is Hawaii part of the Ring of Fire? Could the ongoing eruption at Kilauea volcano trigger similar outbursts along the West Coast, or explode like Krakatoa? If it weren’t for volcanoes, would the Earth itself explode?

The answer to each of these questions is a resounding “no.” And yet all of them were recently promoted by high-profile news outlets or respected individuals with large social media followings. And that’s not even the worst of it. In more conspiratorially-minded corners of the internet, folks have been wondering whether shockwaves from North Korean nuclear tests rippled through the Pacific tectonic plate, triggering Kilauea’s eruption. Or perhaps it’s all just ancient aliens messing with us.


(Again, no on both counts.)

Every major scientific event, from a solar eclipse to an iceberg calving in Antarctica, spawns its share of sensational media coverage, false claims, and conspiracy theories. But for whatever reason, volcanic eruptions seem especially prone to getting swept up in hyperbole. And that’s unfortunate, because while chemtrails aren’t going to kill you, getting the wrong information on an eruption just might.

That’s why official sources like the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and a cadre of scientists have been working overtime to disseminate accurate information and debunk myths as the eruption at Kilauea continues. And they’ve seen some success.

In an article published on May 13, the Associated Press spread the idea that Kilauea is part of the geologically-dubious Ring of Fire (it’s actually a hotspot volcano in the middle of the Pacific plate), and that its eruption might trigger heightened volcanic activity on the West Coast (the two systems are unconnected). Scientists were quick to respond on social media, prompting the AP to delete a tweet and slap a correction at the top of its story.


Then there’s the notion that Kilauea “could be another Krakatoa,” a reference to the Indonesian volcano’s massive 1883 eruption that killed over 36,000 people. Laurence Tribe, a Harvard constitutional law professor, tweeted this nonsensical scenario to his 334,000 followers on Sunday. According to Michael Poland, a volcanologist with the USGS Yellowstone Volcano Observatory, the size of Tribe’s audience prompted USGS Volcanoes to issue a rare direct rebuttal on Twitter. Tribe subsequently deleted the tweet.

Image: Maddie Stone

Poland is one of several scientists that USGS has called in to help field social media questions and disseminate information while staff in Hawaii focus on the local response. He told Earther the flood of queries regarding Kilauea’s activity has been “incredible.” While the social media team tries to respond individually as much as possible, sometimes, when a false rumor pops up over and over again, they issue a more official response.


That happened on Monday, when the USGS Hawaii Volcano Observatory published an article explaining that no, Kilauea is not going to fall into the ocean and generate a Pacific-wide tsunami.

The wild-sounding idea stemmed a respected source: A May 7 article published by UC Berkeley’s Seismology Lab, which discussed a low-probability scenario in which the collapse of Kilauea’s south flank generates a giant undersea earthquake.


On the whole, the Berkeley article was “very well written” and accurate, Poland said. “But [at the end] it needed that one more paragraph that said the odds of this happening are very small.”

Emphasizing the likelihood of a specific scenario is a hallmark of good disaster communication, according to Concord University volcanologist Janine Krippner.


“There are people who look at limited data and make wild predictions very confidently, but if you really know how uncertain they are, [you] don’t do that,” she told Earther. “We don’t want to scare people, we don’t want to unnecessarily dramatize things. ”


For an example of how exaggerated warnings can have real impacts on people’s lives, Krippner pointed to the eruptions at Mt. Agung in Bali, Indonesia last fall, the build-up to which generated a seemingly-endless buffet of sensational stories. She recalled receiving emails and Twitter messages from families who canceled their hard-earned vacations solely because of tabloid headlines, even if those vacations were to somewhere outside the affected area. “This was affecting local people... because [visitors] were frightened away from going.”


There’s also the concern misinformation will erode trust in real information, causing people to, say, not take evacuation orders seriously when their lives are at risk. Poland said he was especially disturbed by the rumors of Kilauea sliding into the sea because of how much it upset locals.

“The people in the disturbance zone get concerned, and many of them that know the USGS come to us and say ‘what is this, why aren’t you telling us?’” he said. “It creates a nervousness [among] the public, and [extra] work for those people trying to respond to the real threat.”


Compounding the difficulty for scientists is the fact that the outlets doing the most damage—several volcanologists I spoke with cited “the UK tabloids” as the worst offenders—have outsized platforms compared with the folks trying to clear the air. Another problem is that most of the lay public learns next to nothing about volcanoes in school.


“A lot of people don’t get any geosciences or Earth sciences at any point,” Denison University volcanologist Erik Klemetti told Earther. “If you don’t take it in college or don’t go to college, you [may] just get the colloquial knowledge.”

By and large, “colloquial knowledge” is the stuff we pick up from disaster flicks: think 2003's The Core or the 1997 classic Volcano. Fun as they may be, movies like these have ultimately reinforced a smorgasbord of false beliefs, from the idea that every eruption will be a global event (there are often more than a dozen happening around the world at once), to the notion that eruptions are only dangerous if they’re spewing fountains of lava (giant ash clouds can be just as bad), or that maybe you can just outrun a pyroclastic flow (you can’t).


Asked how the media can help combat these ideas, Klemetti said it’s important to make sure information is from good sources like the USGS, and to cool the discussion of worst-case scenarios. Ultimately it’s important to remember that eruptions are natural, normal events, and that just because you’re hearing about one in the news right now doesn’t mean the Earth is entering some sort of state of heightened activity or unrest (yet another very common misconception).

“I think people look for patterns, want there to be patterns,” Poland said. “I think in some ways we’re programmed to do that.”


But as long as volcanologists have to fight our psychological programming, they will. After all, lives are at stake. Geophysicist and disaster researcher Mika McKinnon emphasized how important it is that every expert with a platform step up when they see bad information making the rounds.

“The USGS is doing amazing job but it does not have the social media clout of NASA,” she said. “All the disaster and science communication people who do have an established platform? Right now it’s important for them to be identifying misconceptions, [and] slapping them down.”


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Maddie Stone

Maddie Stone is a freelancer based in Philadelphia.