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Daily life or panic as volcano erupts?

by on 2017/02/03

Volcanoes are fascinating and people are drawn to them. My classes this week have involved discussing with the students the biased nature of the geological record and how important it is that we understand how the nature of reporting volcanic eruptions has changed with time. We also touched on the possibility that in recent times more eruptions have been recorded as our technology has improved and today we have a more mobile population. The in’s and out of this discussion is a debate within itself. What we concluded was that the record was biased and we had to take care to accurately report eruptions.

At the same time, on my Facebook timeline, I could see colleagues becoming annoyed about some of the UK media reporting of the Colima eruption, in Mexico.  Colima volcano has been erupting periodically for years (http://ciiv.ucol.mx/activity_of_volcan_de_colima.php) and is of interest to many researchers in the UK.

In the last week, there has been some interesting articles popping up in the UK press notably, The Express and The Mirror. These reports were being shared on my Facebook timeline not for the eruption, but for the quality of reporting of the UK media. So much so, the Centre de Intercambio e Investigación en Vulcanología (CIIV) has even commented on their Facebook profile about the poor quality of reporting. Many of the items discussed below are also commented by the CIIV on their Facebook page and also by visitors to their page.

The article in the Mirror leads with a headline ‘Massive volcanic eruption near Mexico City…’ but further down the article the location has changed to near Mexico’s west coast. A simple google search would easily clarify the location for the author and would indicate Colima is around 470 km from Mexico City. Certainly large eruptions can affect cities 470 km away, as we witnessed in 2010 with the Eyjafjallajökull eruption affecting much of northern Europe. However, the location of the volcano is normally well known today with our modern technology, even when located in the most remote parts of the world.

The Express article at least reports a few details, such as the height of the eruption plume although they still believe Colima is relatively close to Mexico City. The article goes onto state, “If ash does fall, residents have been advised to cover their bodies in water so they do not become contaminated” which is also highlighted in the headline. I suspect this is not the advice that has been issued. The reason why? Ash is extremely fine grained volcanic glass. So think of a bag of flour that is composed of small glass shards. Inhalation of such material is bad, which is why during eruptions you will see pictures of people covering their mouths and noses. However, if you mix ash with water (rain, river, moisture in your breath for example), the result with sufficient water turns the ash into a sludge like cement mixture, which if you inhale can lead to dire consequences.

If we continue through the Mirror article they go on to say:

“There is no confirmation at present whether an evacuation is underway, but the scale of the blast suggests this is imminent.”

It is uncertain where this information has arisen from and if we were to just consider the UK reporting of this volcanic eruption, it would appear that the area around Colima is in panic. According to the Facebook page of CIIV:

“Life continues as usual but with a close eye on the volcano to see if things increase further.”

The volcanic activity at Colima does seem to have increased in the last month, but for the time being (at the time of writing) life is continuing as normal to the local inhabitants, perhaps with a closer eye on their volcano, 470 km away from Mexico City.

It hasn’t been all bad reporting this week. There is a lovely piece in The Telegraph  about the Smithsonian Volcano Database, which is part of the Global Volcanism program. According to the Global Volcanism Program Facebook feed, they had no input into this article highlighting the good quality of reporting that can be achieved.

The Smithsonian Volcano Database holds a catalogue of all known volcanic eruptions in the Holocene (last 11,500 years). Globally we believe over 1500 years have erupted, but within historical times (written history) humans have only witnessed eruptions from about 500 volcanoes. It was this catalogue of eruptions that I was discussing with my students, as it is a brilliant resource in our lectures this week. The catalogue is biased to eruptions that occur on land, and many of those that occur underwater are not recorded. The further back we go in time the more uncertain some of the records become. The piece even talks about the UK’s volcanoes, although none on our mainland are active any longer such as Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh (see photo), but there are active volcanoes in the British Oversea territories.

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Photo of Salisbury Crags part of the volcanic complex of Arthur’s Seat in Holyrood Park, Edinburgh.

The Smithsonian Volcano database and the information in it, is fundamental if we are to understand trends in volcanic behaviour over time. For anyone interested in volcanoes I would highly recommend this article and to go and have a look at the Smithsonian Volcano Database.

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