It is the 40th anniversary of the eruption of the St. Helens volcano and as I think of those days, I realize that even though a majority of the population wasn't even alive at the time, the volcano still matters. Not because of the potential for future eruptions (although that remains a distinct possibility), but because of the way we process and deal with the natural hazards that we all face, no matter where we live.
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 as 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 in many media sources, 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 eruptions of Steamboat Geyser in Yellowstone National Park numerous times after years of quiescence 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
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 were some serious and tragic things going on summer before last when the longest eruption in recorded history reached a climax. The activity endangered lives and destroyed homes as Kilauea underwent major changes from the "norm" of the eruptions that had been ongoing for the last 35 years. The U.S. Geological Survey and Hawaiian civil defense authorities did a pretty good job of providing up-to-date information about the latest activity, but that didn't stop 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 was just too easy to pick up stories of eruptions in Alaska and Indonesia and think there was 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 had signed up for earthquake notifications and volcano advisories from the USGS or other geologic research institutions, you would have realized 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 mostly trusted the geologists who studied the volcanoes all their lives and thus made the correct decisions about evacuating homes and businesses. 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.
There has been one characteristic about the natural disasters that I've described above. They were local
events that profoundly changed lives, but in large and yet limited regions. When earthquakes and volcanic eruptions strike, survivors can turn to other regional state and national governments for support, since those entities were not so badly affected. Now we face a different set of natural disasters: those that affect the entire planet. Pandemics and climate change affect all of us. Witness the spread of the COVID-19 virus to literally every corner and every country of the planet in a matter of weeks.
Scientific experts have long predicted the emergence of dangerous new strains of viruses, and previous administrations used the best scientific minds to prepare for their inevitable arrival. But those administrations were replaced by one that denigrated scientific expertise and fired the experts who could have crafted an appropriate national response to the COVID-19 virus. And today we see the result: nearly 100,000 deaths in the U.S. already with many more to come, lack of critical medical supplies and stockpiles, and no coordinated federal response. Even worse is a propaganda campaign that is convincing people that the disease is not as bad as it clearly is. Other countries listened to their scientists and saved countless lives. We are instead loosening critical restrictions even as the numbers in many areas of the country continue to rise.
And that's why the Mt. St. Helens eruption of 1980 matters today. Scientific expertise matters. Pandemics will be a continuing problem in our interconnected world. And climate change is an even more profound danger to society than any virus, 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 every time (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 two years 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.
This has been a highly abridged and updated version of last year's St. Helen eruption anniversary reflection.