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The Silent Volcano

Wednesday was marked with rumors flying around about the imminent eruption of Iceland’s volcano Hekla, which news reports dubbed as “one of Iceland’s most feared volcanoes”.

The mountain has entirely failed to grip me with fear despite it erupting roughly every decade since the 1940′s, so naturally I felt somewhat puzzled by this news report and wanted to know where it came from, how the rumor floated around, and how it hit the world media without the famous stratovolcano giving any occasion to.

This is in many ways a study in modern journalism, I found, as following the path from the news piece on (Australian) ABC news that was brought to my attention by Alda Sigmarsdóttir (@aldakalda) on Twitter through to its origins.

For those who haven’t been paying attention, the subglacial volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted in 2010 after a smaller eruption nearby on Fimmvörðuháls. Its ash plume reached up into the jet stream and carried far and wide, disrupting air traffic in Europe, Northern Asia and parts of North America for several weeks.

When earlier this year the much more frequently erupting Grímsvötn volcano went off, there was much worry that the ash cloud would devistate the travel industry once again, but only a few days later, to the chagrin of many, it fell silent once more.

As can be imagined, the people of Iceland are pretty awake to the fact that volcanoes erupt every now and then. Probably not more or less so than the inhabitants of Montserrat or Hawaii, just the amount of cautiousness you learn to live with when you’re on a geologically active zone.

I often joke that I grew up with a volcano in my back yard. Strictly speaking it was my sister’s back yard until she moved house last year, but having lived for over a decade on Heimaey, where a volcanic erruption in 1973 caused the population to evacuate overnight and ended up crushing over 400 houses – roughly half the town at the time – in lava flow, I have a natural sense of respect for powers that we humans are powerless against.

In that kind of environment, the media pays attention and runs stories every now and then about geological developments.

“It’s been ready to erupt for the last three or four years,” geologist Gunnar B. Guðmundsson was quoted in Vísir on July 6th, after several articles in various media mentioned unusual disturbances and expansion under the volcano. He went on to say that the disturbances were not severe and that there was in fact currently no expansion, although there had been some expansion before the weekend. Further he noted that no earthquakes were being detected in the area.

He further iterated that there were no signs of an impending eruption, so of course the article was given the headline: “It could erupt tomorrow, or twenty years from now.”

Not blatantly lying of course, but still granting the story the same level of scientific rigidity and journalistic professionalism as you can expect from articles published in the Watchtower.

Not long after that, people started posting a link to this article on Facebook. Here’s a screenshot highlighting the bits of the article that you’re going to be focusing on if you visit the site directly from somebody’s Facebook stream.

The things that are important to the reader initially upon arriving are the validity of the media source – Mbl.is has a good reputation despite everything, and 9350 Facebook users can’t be wrong, right? (Specially when two of them are old classmates from that island…)

And here’s the same highlighting the bits that you’re not going to pay attention to even though you should.

Facebook does nothing to highlight the posting date of links posted. Not that it’s trivial. Web content is very rarely appropriately timestamped, which is a serious problem. A lot of the things we are posting on the Internet are highly time-contextualized, but a lot of people seem to think that time is irrelevant. In fact, I’d even argue that time-based searching and filtering is going to become increasingly important in coming years. The reason? Well, I can play that game too, you see. For example here and here. They’re fresh! Right?

At any rate it wasn’t long after this started circulating wildly on Facebook that an AFP stringer, Robert Robertsson, did a writeup of the situation. The name is pretty typically Icelandic, and an acquaintance of mine and Robert’s namesake pointed out to me that there was someone by that name who used to work at Séð og Heyrt, Iceland’s predominant glamour rag. I don’t know if it’s the same person, nor does affiliation with one preclude or predetermine the other, it’s just a thought that there can’t be all that many Róbert Róbertsson’s working in journalism in Iceland.

Now. There are a number of things wrong with the AFP article. Before I go into its contents, let me draw special attention to the picture posted with it:

Not Hekla. "The Hekla volcano on Heimaey island" - AFP

Remember when I said I grew up with a volcano in my back yard? That’s it. It’s name is “Eldfell”, literally “Fire Mountain”. Scary, eh? Also very much not Hekla. For those who are slightly confused by this, here’s a helpful map provided by Wikipedia:

Locations of Hekla and Heimaey

Having cleared that up, let’s look at the text:

One of Iceland’s most feared volcanoes looks ready to erupt, with measurements indicating magma movement, Icelandic experts said Wednesday, raising fears of a new ash cloud halting flights over Europe.

Could we have a source saying that it’s feared? By whom is it feared? Why would people fear Hekla when they live in the same country as Katla and Askja, for example? Most people refer to Hekla with a warm and cuddly feeling. It’s a fairly gentle giant, as they go.

Who are these experts? The expert cited above isn’t saying that.

When in the past has an ash cloud from Hekla halted flights over Europe? I remember in 2000 I was trying to fly from Reykjavík to Vestmannaeyjar during the eruption – the flight was delayed by about 20 minutes. Not all volcanoes are equal, thankfully.

The Hekla volcano is close to the ash-spewing Eyjafjoell, which last year caused the world’s biggest airspace shut down since World War II, affecting more than 100,000 flights and eight million passengers.

The guy who wrote this is Icelandic. Why does the article say “Eyjafjoell” rather than “Eyjafjallajökull”? Also, in these days of data journalism, can’t we be more accurate than just quoting Wikipedia’s guesstimates eaten up from Various Sources (including BBC in the case of the Wikipedia article)?

Another geophysicist, Ari Trausit Gudmundsson, also said the measurements around Hekla were very “unusual” and that the volcano looked ready to blow.

Does AFP not have copy editors? It’s “Ari Trausti Guðmundsson”. A Google search yields 157000 hits, versus rougly 900.

The volcano, dubbed by Icelanders in the Middle Ages as the “Gateway to Hell,” is one of Iceland’s most active, having erupted some 20 times over the past millennium, most recently on February 26, 2000.

20 times over the past millennium is roughly twice per century. We know of 28 eruptions, 7 of which happened in the 20th century. I think that’s a great deal more interesting.

Measuring 1,491 metres (4,892 feet) and located about 110 kilometres (70 miles) east of Reykjavik, Hekla is so active that scientists estimate about 10 percent of the tephra — the solid matter ejected when a volcano erupts — produced in Iceland over the past millenium, about five cubic kilometres, comes from this one volcano.

This part is genuinely interesting. I’d love to see a source for those claims though.

Lava eruptions are far less disruptive to air travel, and “if the next eruption is of the same character (as the previous ones) it is unlikely that it will have any effects on flights in Europe,” he said.

Let’s put this differently: Lava eruptions are not disruptive to air travel, unless the eruption is happening in the middle of an airport. To claim that there’s a possibility here is equivalent to spilling ice cream on the ground being disruptive to air travel. I suppose there is the possibility that the earth could manage to spray molten lava high enough that it disrupts air travel. Let’s imagine some 10 gram blobs of lava being propelled up to the typical cruising altitude of a modern plane – let’s say 34000 ft – roughly 10 km. So force equals mass times acceleration, so if we imagine these 10 grams getting to 10 km altitude and dropping, and that the air cooling on the way up has formed the lava blob into a perfectly aerodynamic shape, then we’re expecting … in fact, let’s not even indulge in this preposterous idea any further.

Rongvaldur Olafsson, a project manager at the Icelandic Civil Protection Authority, said no immediate safety precautions were being taken but: “We will watch the mountain and developments very closely.”

Another misspelled name. “Rögnvaldur”. Easy enough. Swapping those letters cannot be necessary.

After Iceland’s last two eruptions, geologists have warned that the country’s volcanoes appeared to have entered a more active phase and that more eruptions could be expected, with Hekla believed to be first in line.

Or Katla. Or Hengill. Or … there’s so many options.

From all of this we’ve learned two things:

  • Rumors have a tendency to scatter all over the place really fast, and Facebook isn’t exactly helping.
  • AFP doesn’t appear to copy edit their articles, let alone check their stories.