Terrible volcano journalism (and the weekend open thread)

Satellite image of the island of Tenerife with the main vent of the volcano (El Teide) in the central part of the island.

I will be out of town for the next few days, so I thought I'd leave this thread for breaking volcano news that any of you Eruptions readers notice.

However, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to point out some abysmal science journalism before I go. I mean, I shouldn't have been surprised considering this is from the The Sun(UK), but, come on, could you at least put some effort in?

The article in question pertains to the recent controversy about the level of danger people might be in on Tenerife in the Canary Islands. The Canaries are, of course, a popular tourist destination and the Sun wants to sow the seeds of doubt. The best (and, at the same time worst) line in the article is:

"It erupts around once every 100 years -- and the last was in 1909."


Now, where did that number come from? A cursory look at the eruptive history of Tenerife shows that this is pretty much not true at all, but no, lets publish that anyway because wouldn't it be cool to say! It is complete statistical nonsense that sounds forboding but is absolutely and entirely meaningless. Tenerife has has 5 eruptions over the last 517 years (that we know of), which translates into a (meaningless) recurrance interval of 103 years. However, if you look at the dates, there isn't anything near a pattern: 1492, 1704, 1706, 1798, 1909. This sort of nonsense clouds the fact that, yes, Tenerife is an active volcano that needs monitoring, not silly statement like that.

And speaking of silly statements, I honestly have no idea what this means: Experts are worried about "semi-volcanic activity" in 12,200ft Mount Teide -- Spain's highest peak.. "Semi-volcanic activity"? Anybody want to help me out here on this one.

These sort of articles just cloud important issues with meaningless drivel and really make it more difficult for volcanologists to explain to people what is really important when it comes to predicting and monitoring volcanic activity.

More like this

"...there isn't anything near a pattern: 1492, 1704, 1706, 1798, 1909."

How can you say that!!!

1492 was the year Columbus became land-_locked_ on the west side of the Atlantic.

1704 was the year John _Locke_ died.

1706 was the year Benjamin Franklin was born. He used a key from a _lock_ to test lightning.

1798 was the first year that the US House of representatives became _locked_ in a brawl

1909 was the year when Robert Peary claimed a _lock_ on being the first person to reach the geographic North Pole.

How can you say there's no pattern????!!!!

Two things the Sun is never associated with :

- science
- journalism.

By NoAstronomer (not verified) on 23 Apr 2009 #permalink

My elderly mother just rang me here in Tenerife, from the UK worried about me after what she had read in the Sun about Teide erupting and no evacuation plan..this is the way panic and scare-mongering spreads. I am listening to Canarian News on TV and I assure you not one mention of Teide erupting!! 14.54pm 23/04/09

By Virginia Bottomley (not verified) on 23 Apr 2009 #permalink

Well it comes from pretty much the worst "newspaper" in the UK so not really all that suprising. I mean any paper that can 20 years ago have a front page article "The Truth" referring to the Hillsborough stadium disaster saying that 96 Liverpool Football fans were killed by Liverpool football supporters, who urinated on the dead and dying and robbed them and claimed that it was the truth is not journalism.

It was clear to anyone that was either at that game or watched the game on TV that the fans were actually trying to save lives by carrying those injured fans to safty helping the ambulance crews rather than the garbage that The Sun came up with. If it wasnt for those brave fans who helped out many more would have died. The Sun has to this day never really apologised for that particular article, neither has the then Editor Kelvin Mackenzie (spelling?) who has since repeated that he stands by what his paper at the time printed.

The Sun is a newspaper for the brain dead and below average intelligence.

The Sun is from the same media 'stable' as Fox News; 'nuff said, I think. Looking at the dates given, I would say that -maybe- there is a pattern of sorts; if you assume that 1704 and 1706 were part of the same extended episode (and perhaps 1798 too, although that is an anomaly) IF there is a rough return interval it would be on the order of 200-250 years rather than 100

The Sun isn't the only problematic newspaper out there. Science reporting is abysmal everywhere, that's why there are AIDS denialists, climate change denialists, evolution denialists, and there are many others. That's why PZ has so much fun with his blog.

As I recall, a couple of years ago, scientists were quoted in a legitimate science publication wondering if the Cascadia subduction zone had completed its latest cluster of earthquakes. The clusters usually occur in fives, spaced on average so many hundreds of years apart. So, it could be a cluster of four, or the fifth one is on its way. What fun can be had with that.

Things like the "hundred year flood" level? We know that it's really one in a hundred in any given year.

It's not always the reporter's fault (haha, fault). Some editors spice things up. That explains why a citizen some years ago was quoted in a local paper as saying a meteorite bounced off the highway in front of his car. Turns out he said no such thing, but the editor had worked for the National Enquirer (personal knowledge; don't ask).

Well, make yourself feel better by checking out the latest pics of our "pet" volcano, Redoubt:


I thought a semi-volcano was like a semi-idiot. It's kind of insulting, and the volcanoes might get mad, if they hear you.

I think the correct term for this kind of stuff might be semi-articulate journalism.

im going to tenerife-golf del sur and am really worried about these reports, should i be worried?? please help!

Lorna, I wouldn't be worried if you are going for a visit. However, if you are worried just make sure there hasn't been unusual earthquake activity there and no reports on this blog of the volcano waking up before you get on your flight.

Having said that, I also looked at the dates of the Tenerife eruptions yesterday and I did a rough estimate of some hundred year cycles. Now, my conclusion was that it often has an explosive eruption every 100 to roughly 300 years.

Because the more recent dates are more reliable - and might be a better predictor of future activity - I'll just mention a few of them. And I am particularly focusing on explosive eruptions - ignoring the others because they are probably less dangerous.

Between 1909 and 1798 we have 111 years.

Between 1798 and 1706/1704 we have about 93 years.

Between 1706/1704 and 1492 we have about 203 years.

Between 1492 and 1430 we have 62 years.

So, just as a rough estimate for a possible reawakening of Tenerife, I think the timeframe given by the Sun newspaper - is accurate enough for them. If they were anymore accurate or precise - they might have to change the name of their newspaper, so as not too confuse anyone - and to recapture readers who are interested in accuracy. :)

People living on the Island should give it almost a fifty percent chance of having an explosive eruption in the next fifty years. And if you include the other types of eruptions of Tenerife listed at the Global Volcanism site - Central vent - Flank vent - and lava flows - then the odds might be higher.

As for the comment about "semi-volcanic activity" - my mind immediately tranlated this - and I am not sure why - was it something I read here? I figure they mean that any disruptive activity at that peak whether volcanic or seismic could cause the peak to collapse. But, don't ask me why I think this what they meant - it is just what I assume they meant.

Sometimes intuition can help - other times failure to read something accurately leads to a wrong conclusion.

I have two coins in my pocket that total 30 cents. One of them is not a Quarter. What two coins do I have?

By Thomas Donlon (not verified) on 23 Apr 2009 #permalink

I'm a geology student here in Spain, and we have a bad perception about what Sun is saying -basically that soon will be an important eruption and no one will be ready-.

The problem is that during the 2004 seismic swarm in Las Canarias Spanish press was saying almost the same with the help of some geologists that wanted to be the first to predict a modern eruption in las Canarias, but nothing happened.

And there were some other eartquakes during the last months over the islands (is this a really strange event there??).

Maybe we don't have the better instrumentalized volcanoes in the world, but they are being watched closely to see if there is any sign of unrest.

So I hope in the next future the Las Canarias Volcano Observatory is created. I hope.

Greetings from Spain!

I have two coins in my pocket that total 30 cents. One of them is not a Quarter. What two coins do I have?

Posted by: Thomas Donlon | April 23, 2009 5:32 PM

two US 50¢ coins

On a lighter note

My son was watching the Seconds to Disaster BBC program on the Soufrière Hills Volcano and was upset at the shody and poorly done extra graphics. I quote him "If anyone watching this did not know anything about volcanos they would never know about all the extra graphics they added to the program with out [film makers] telling anyone. Thats not good science."

A budding volcanologist in the making, he's 9...

By theroachman (not verified) on 23 Apr 2009 #permalink

Thank you for that information thomas, its much appreciated :-)
Are they talking about the main peak erupting?or is it one of the ones around it?

It appears to me that any eruption - be this on the flanks of Teide or at its summit - will be preceded by a number of relatively clear precursors, such as seismic swarms, probably shallowing with time, deformation (uplift) that can be measured with GPS and satellite-based radar interferometry, gas emissions, gravity and magnetic changes ... this volcanic system has no open conduit so uprising magma will have to push its way to the surface rupturing rocks, and this will not go unnoticed. The odds are very much that the next eruption will be like all historically documented events on Tenerife (or also on La Palma), with small cinder cones built by moderately strong explosive (Strombolian) activity and lava flows a few kilometers long. Such an eruption would affect a rather limited area and even if close to populated areas people would have time to save their lives and possibly much of their belongings. Any larger - more explosive - event should be preceded by more conspicuous uplift and possibly also seismicity. I don't have the feeling this is being observed currently. In any case, it is very difficult to base forecasts on statistics, especially at a volcano where intervals between eruptions are so irregular. At Etna in Sicily, there have been eruptions at very low elevation on the flanks (something like below 1000 m above sea-level) roughly every 150 to 200 years before 1669, which was when there was the last eruption of this type. Since then, 340 years have passed. So statistically, the next eruption at low elevation should be largely overdue. Still, there is no whatsoever sign of this happening soon (that is, months to years from now). I think, certainly, that in the long term there should be some significant disaster and emergency planning, educational work, and continuous volcano monitoring, for which a Canarias Volcano Observatory would be a rather fine idea.

Lorna..do not be worried. From the Golf del Sur you can look up and see Teide and if there was an eruption you would know! It is a long way away from the Golf.. Also you are about a 5 minute car/taxi journey to the airport..planes fly so low overhead at the Golf that you can tell what make of tyre they have and how much tread is left so you could walk to the airport..if need be from there in 20 minutes.....and Golf del Sur is on the south of the island and the last eruption was on the north..so I would say..enjoy your holiday.
I live 2000ft up the mountain, me worried???? well what am I doing on this site??? It reminds me of the famous
" There will not be a hurrican warning" or the " I did not have....with that woman" scenarios. " There will be no volcanic eruption"

Lorna, with the better information provided by Boris Behncke and Virginia - I wouldn't feel too uncomfortable about living there either.

The dates for the eruptions at Tenerife included multiple peaks on the Island. Sometimes one would erupt, at another time another. The link provided in this blog by Erik http://www.volcano.si.edu/world/volcano.cfm?vnum=1803-03-&volpage=erupt has the dates of activity on each of these peaks.

Now the answer to my riddle.

"I have two coins in my pocket that total 30 cents. One of them is not a Quarter. What two coins do I have?"

A careful reading is that ONE of the coins is not a Quarter. The other coin IS a Quarter. So a Quarter and a Nickle make 30 cents. For some reason our brain glosses over or don't process the words exactly.

By Thomas Donlon (not verified) on 24 Apr 2009 #permalink

I have two coins in my pocket that total 30 cents. One of them is not a Quarter. What two coins do I have?

I was going to say a Quarter and a not a Quarter. By I am easily influded by "semi-volcanic activity".

so if the volcano was to go off what are the chances of being affected by it in las americas? and in what way?

Thank you all for your help. you have put my mind at ease, very much so! muchas gracias!

Something else that hasn't been mentioned, and that should put people's minds at rest if they are at all worried, is that the recent '100 year' eruptions have been small cinder cones from the Cordillera Dorsal above Guimar and from the Santiago Ridge in the NW.

These cinder cones throw some fireworks up into the air, and often erupt a stream of basalt lava which may travel relatively slowly for a few km, but aren't anything like as destructive as is suggested. The last moderately big eruption was from Montana Blanca over 2000 years ago.

I think this report must have arisen out of the useful research on volcanic hazard in Tenerife that has been published recently?

Thanks very much for the article and all the comments I've read.

I'm from Tenerife and I got so angry when a British friend sent me the link to "The Sun". The economy of Canary islands is absolutely focused in tourism and the English are the main visitors so an alarmist article like that in a paper with so much circulation can do a lot of damage to the economy of the islands, especially now when the unemployment rate is so high.

The damage is already done but I hope that articles like this one could help to make light of it.



BTW: We really need an evacuation plan. Please check the link I left.

Basically, the Sun printed a story without checking the facts. The Tenerife Govenment (Cabildo) has become outraged at the 'findings' of Alicia Garcia, and has even gone as far as to send a letter of complaint to the CSIS.

We covered the official Cabildo response (and the fact that a second member of the CSIS found entirely different results) on our dedicated Teide Eruption page, which you can find here:


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