Friday, May 18, 2018

The Mount St. Helens Eruption at 38 years, and Why it Matters Today

I'd love to say I got these photographs of Mt. St. Helens last week when I flew to Seattle, but we flew right over the volcano, so you'll have to settle for the pictures I got on a flyover back in 2006. I did get pictures of Mt. Rainier and Medicine Lake Highland though. In any case, it is the 38th anniversary of the famed eruption of the volcano and as I think of those days, I realize some disturbing things.
When the volcano began rumbling and sending ash into the atmosphere, we had only a few avenues to get information, mainly television news, radio, and newspapers. I think now how limiting these sources were compared to the nearly instantaneous delivery of news over the internet in the present day. We can look up earthquakes just moments after they happen, and webcams allow us to monitor volcanoes around the world in real time. There is both good and bad in this profound change. There were terrible sources of news in those olden days, like the Weekly World News or the National Enquirer, but they pale in comparison to the sewage found on the internet today. Back then, national news outlets and newspapers practiced careful journalism in most instances, but it often seems today that the only reward for excellence and honesty in reporting is decreased ratings and falling revenues. To get attention in a crowded internet environment media outlets have to dress their stories in shiny objects and provide them with the worst possible clickbait titles. In the olden days we often had to wait impatiently for information about natural disasters, but the information that came through the media was more often vetted and checked for accuracy. The journalistic filters today are completely gone, and it can be difficult to distinguish between the trash and the truth.

There are so many conspiracy theories floating around today about natural disasters and potential disasters. The eruption of Steamboat Geyser in Yellowstone National Park five times in two months (after four years of quiescence) has caused a blizzard of posts on the internet pondering whether Yellowstone has been disturbed and may blow as a "supervolcano" eruption soon (and we'll all die). The same has happened after a number of recent small earthquakes. But a reading of the reality-based data says that Yellowstone caldera has not had a lava flow or eruption of any kind in 70,000 years, and no knowledgeable geologist sees any evidence of precursors to any new eruptions. A few years back, an earthquake and an internet video of a group of bison running "away" from Yellowstone caused the same kind of internet speculation (it turns out the bison were running towards the caldera).

Of course it is true that the Yellowstone caldera was born in one of the most colossal eruptions ever recorded. Learning the story of the eruption of the Huckleberry Tuff is fascinating. It brings an entirely new appreciation of the incredible scenery to be observed in a place that contains 70% of all the world's geysers. It should be enough. But there are so many individuals out there who would like to make a buck by scaring people needlessly. And there are too many gullible and ignorant people out there who can't pick rational accounts out of the confusing mix of conspiracy theories that exist on the internet.

And then there is the Big Island of Hawai'i. There are some serious things going on during the current phase of the eruption. The activity is endangering lives and destroying homes as Kilauea undergoes some major changes from the "norm" of the eruptions that have been ongoing for the last 35 years. The U.S. Geological Survey and Hawaiian civil defense authorities have been doing a pretty good job of providing up-to-date information about the latest activity, but that hasn't stopped all kinds of stories from popping up on the internet about the "Ring of Fire" which has nothing at all to do with Hawai'i. It is just too easy to pick up stories of eruptions in Alaska and Indonesia and think there is a pattern of increasing volcanism or earthquake activity (OMG, a magnitude 6 quake in the Kermadec Islands and an eruption at Mt. Cleveland in Alaska! It's a pattern and therefore Seattle will fall into the sea very soon!). The problem is one of perspective: if you sign up for earthquake notifications and volcano advisories from the USGS or other geologic research institutions, you would realize that these things happen all the time, and that a cluster of events is not unusual.
It's one thing to make up stories about normal volcanic activity to scare people. One can argue that they are ultimately harmless because the eruptions aren't actually taking place or hurting anyone. But there are real-world consequences of ignoring journalistic standards. Many of those who make their money with false headlines about such things will also traffic in climate change denial. When science becomes a matter of believing whatever one wishes, the very real problem of global warming becomes just another "scare" story, and the alarm bells being sounded by climate scientists become just more noise in an internet full of noise. But the real-world consequences are happening now, and action is needed to counteract the changes or to stop them. But it has become too easy to ignore the problem because it is so incremental and slow-acting. It just can't compete with the shiny baubles and clickbait on the web.
People in Hawai'i right now are largely trusting the geologists who have studied the volcanoes all their lives and are thus making the correct decisions about evacuating their homes. In the same way they trusted the seismologists when a tsunami threatened the islands in 2011 after the massive earthquake in Japan. No lives were lost when the tsunami hit because people had evacuated the low-lying areas. The wave surge was 8 feet deep in places and caused millions of dollars of damage. Many people could have been killed, but they accepted the authority of the scientists who predicted the timing and magnitude of the seismically induced waves.

And that's why the Mt. St. Helens eruption of 1980 matters today. Science and scientific expertise matters. Climate change is an even more profound danger to society than any earthquake or volcanic eruption. We need people to give climate scientists the same kind of respect they give geologists when volcanoes are rumbling and smoking. They are the ones to listen to, not the hucksters on the internet who are out to make a buck, or trying to protect those industries that make their profits off of producing greenhouse gases. We seem to talk little these days about integrity and striving for excellence, but scientific researchers are among those who still have those traits. There are always exceptions, but I would trust a scientist over a politician any day of the week (unless it is clear that the politician knows how to listen to a scientist).

There is a sign seen at some of the March For Science protests that have been happening for the last year and a half around the country: "At the start of every disaster movie there's a scientist being ignored". Unfortunately, it is too true in real life as well.

If you are searching for good updates on Hawai'i volcanic activity, check out the USGS Twitter account at https://twitter.com/USGSVolcanoes or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/USGSVolcanoes/