Discovery's Top 10 volcanoes and MSNBC's "volcanoes by dummies"

Back in a former life, I was really into radio and music. Such an existence calls for many lists of rankings: "Best albums of 2004", "All time greatest soul singers", "Worst album covers of the 1980s". And, although I love a list as much as the next person, I tend to find lists appalling. Why? Well, mostly because no "Top list" of anything is accurate, and even worse, most of the time they're put together to generate controversy. "Wait until they see I listed Wade Boggs as the best third basemen in history!" You know, that sort of thing.

Anyway, much to my surprise (chagrin?), I recently an email proudly proclaiming the Discovery Channel's "Top 10 Volcanoes in Geologic History" (my emphasis). OK, let us stop here for a moment. "Geologic History?" Now, how are you going to go about doing that? There are many a volcano that has been wiped clean (mostly) from the geologic record that might very well have been significant, but we only have an ash bed here, an altered pyroclastic flow deposit there, so we might miss the fact that the volcano was significant.

Well, that aside, let's look at the list:

  1. Siberian Traps, Russia
  2. Tambora, Indonesia
  3. Olympus Mons, Mars
  4. Santorini, Greece
  5. Ra Patera, Io
  6. Krakatau, Indonesia
  7. Mauna Kea, Hawai'i
  8. Grimsvotn, Iceland
  9. Mt. Saint Helens, Washington
  10. Ontang-Java Plateau

Let us, for a moment, not get too worked up about the spatial distribution. However ... Saint Helens? Grimsvotn? Santorini? Talk about cherry-picking your volcanoes. This is "geologic history" not "human history". Saint Helens is a tiny blip that formed in the last 10,000 years for the most part. It isn't even the most impressive Cascade volcano by a long shot, let alone "Top 10 Ever". I think Shasta, Mazama and Rainier might take issue with the pipsqueak's ranking.

Anyway, the point here is this list suffers from a lot of "human history" bias. Sure, these are all significant eruptions (well, minus Saint Helens again), but were is Yellowstone? Where is the Fish Canyon Tuff? Where are the multitude of giant eruptions that coat the American southwest with layers of ash? Where are any of the great Andean ignimbrites? Heck, where is Laki (if we're talking Iceland)? This list of volcanoes from all of geologic history could go on and on and if you count extraterrestrial volcanism, well, now we're really standing out on a limb.

So, what is missing or what should be kicked off this list?

If that list has really angried up your blood, why not wander off to MSNBC, where they have posted a handy guide to volcanism. And by handy, I mean laughably awful. How many errors or oversimplifications can you find? After this and last week's FEMA find, you wonder why geologist exist if they don't bother to talk to one to write these. The source for the MSNBC "guide" is AP, Reuters and the Encarta Encylopedia. They couldn't even be bothered to get out of their seats and speak to someone who studies volcanoes and knows where the find is today. Shame on MSNBC.

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When I'm tempted to just give MSNBC a little partial credit for not mixing up the divergent and convergent plate boundaries, and for having all magma come from the mantle rather than from the core... well, their description is better than those of students who bomb their intro geology midterms. Is that a compliment?

(Oh, ouch, the description of subduction makes volcanoes sound like blueschists.)

I think I need to go read the New Orleans Times-Picayune's discussion of ways to deal with coast subsidence, to remember that there are journalists who do an excellent job of covering the earth sciences.

This will obviously show my bias, but I am always most bugged by the MSNBC-like guides that imply that all magma comes directly from the mantle, shooting up through the crust to erupt. Yes, the source of magmas in subduction zones is the upper-most mantle/lower crust, but the magmas formed there are usually changed on the way up thanks to assimilation, storage, homogenization and all the lovely things the crustal filter does.

Then again, there are a lot of people who don't believe in the crust anyway.

"Then again, there are a lot of people who don't believe in the crust anyway."

There are?

By Starwatcher16253647 (not verified) on 27 Mar 2009 #permalink

Sorry, I guess I should clarify: They don't believe the crust means much, in terms of magma evolution - i.e., you can generate silicic lavas like andesite and dacite directly from the mantle.

We do have a bunch of comments (some from names that you might know from the world of volcanology) on the Discovery "volcano hit parade", which you can read here:…
I haven't been as harsh in my comment Erik but essentially you do say it. But then, not everybody can be volcanologists, right? Only that I would never dare expressing myself about technical details regarding, who knows, the stock market. If public outreach primarily involved the specialists, we'd get somewhere - especially since we (meaning, volcanologists and geoscientists in general) have become quite good at it in the past few years.
Thanks for your excellent blog in any case, great battle for keeping the interested public informed the correct way!

I always enjoy the ones that imply any of the following:

a) the mantle is made of magma, or contains significant amounts of magma (the MSNBC piece makes this error)
b) the plates "float"--i.e., they're solid things on top of a liquid (see a)
c) the lava in most subduction-zone volcanoes forms when the subducting crust melts (again, MSNBC gets this wrong too)

Those three are my particular pet peeves.

I'd pick the field of volcanoes producing the Columbia River Basalts as way more significant than Grimsvotn or St. Helens any day. (And as you may recall, I'm partial to Grimsvotn.)

Who could argue with Olympus Mons, as it is the largest volcano in our solar system? It is the size of Arizona! But the caldera complex at Blake River in the Abitibi greenstone belt of Ontario is similar in size the caldera of Olympus Mons! Sure, it's Precambrian, but Discovery is ranking the top volcanoes of "geologic time." Supervolcanoes are not limited to the Quaternary!

My top ten: 1- Olympus Mons; 2- Blake River Megacaldera Complex; 3- Laki; 4- Katmai; 5-Toba; 6- Yellowstone; 7- Taupo; 8- Krakatau (any volcano that can inspire art like The Scream is way cool); 9- Ontang-Java Plateau; 10-Mauna Kea

By definition 50% of the population is below the median intelligence level. MSNBC would be ecstatic with a 10% market share. That should explain it well enough.

Stuff I would have on there would be the eruption in 535 of Krakatau (they are probably listing the one in the 19th century) which kicked off the Dark Ages.

I would also list the Campanian eruption some 40,000 years ago. Long Valley Caldera is missing. It would have been more significant than St. Helens. It's all about attracting eyeballs to advertising, really, and not much about educating people.

I teach an introductory university geology class that focuses on the natural hazards and their relation to plate tectonics, and at the beginning of my first time doing this course, I was shocked at the misconceptions, the most common being that the mantle is 100% liquid, and volcanoes are places where liquid mantle seeps up through cracked crust. On tests, 25% of my students still think the mantle is liquid. The media has conditioned them that this is truth, and the instinctively say so even though they have learned otherwise.

I know where these misconceptions come from and am no longer surprised by them, but the media dishonours me, and all teachers of all sciences by not seeking to put their mostly oversimplified story in a context of oversimplification, leading the reader to understand that the explanations they are being given are not 100% accurate. There's no shame in knowing that it takes at least a semester-long university course to fully understand the state of scientific knowledge on any topic, and even that isn't the whole story.

It's no wonder that most scientists either give interviews with great trepidation, or deny an inverview request. That is actually a good theory as to why the laughable MSNBC thing has no actual scientist as a source.

At least some magma comes from the mantle. (Even leaving out subduction zones... Hawaii? Mid-ocean ridges?) When I ask for a show of hands early in intro classes, some significant number of students - maybe even as much as a third of the class - think it comes from the core. (I don't think most of the students believe that magma can come from the crust, even when they're told that some does.)

From human history point of view, southern Italy has a whole cluster of top class volcanoes. Vesuvius; Etna; Stromboli has been erupting for millennia so reliably that its use as a lighthouse goes back to the days of the Etruscans; and Volcano, the namesake of them all.

But if you go for sheer size, the Deccan Traps should be pretty high on the list. They may even have messed up the climate so bad that they contributed to the mass extinctions at the K/T boundary.

By Lassi Hippeläinen (not verified) on 27 Mar 2009 #permalink

I've never bothered with top 10 anything. Just like the whole load of top 10 lists for last millenium, it's a popularity contest: meaningless in the end.

"Saint Helens is a tiny blip that formed in the last 10,000 years for the most part. It isn't even the most impressive Cascade volcano by a long shot, let alone "Top 10 Ever". I think Shasta, Mazama and Rainier might take issue with the pipsqueak's ranking."

Ouch! That hurt my MSH pride a bit! It was witnessing the 1980 eruption of Mount St Helens which motivated me to become a geologist in the first place.

Stepping back a bit, you are correct. I too would not place MSH on a top ten list of any kind. Perhaps they were referring to the 1479 eruption of Mount St Helens? That event was a VEI 6 and Native Americans were around to witness the event.

I agree with you about Mazama, but you would place Shasta and Rainier before Mount St Helens? No way! Beyond this being a case of regional pride, the best Rainier have done lately is a VEI 3 and Shasta, a VEI 4.

Okay, perhaps it is more of a case of regional pride.

This is a really great top ten list. Is that not a picture of Crater Lake, which I think should be included. I would have also included Mt. Fuji. Anyone can post their own to our site The coolest feature is you can let other people vote on the rankings of your list.

Please feel free to write me directly if you see anything on the MSNBC Web site relating to science coverage (including volcanoes) that you think could be improved. I might actually be able to do something about it. You can write to alan (dot) boyle (at) msnbc (dot) com. I'll be away from keyboard for a few days, unfortunately, but I think we'd be able to fix any interactive guides that need to be amended in time for the next blow-up. All the best, Alan Boyle, science editor, MSNBC.

By Alan Boyle (not verified) on 08 Apr 2009 #permalink

You have a very nice blog here, Sir.
Perhaps you or one of your readers can help me? Im looking for video footage/pictures of the following volcanic features:
Dotsero Crater and La Garita Caldera in Colorado
Emory and Valles Caldera in New Mexico
Buckhorn and Paisano Calderas, and the Solitaro in W Texas

My objective is to make a 1 hour TV show or pilot on relatively unknown volcanos in America.
Any assistance or advice on this project would be appreciated and credited.
PS - good luck on your move to Ohio. I expect your interests will soon include failed rifts as well as magma.

By Fitzpatrick (not verified) on 23 Jul 2009 #permalink

"Where is Laki if we're talking Iceland"...isn't Laki now considered to be part of the Grimsvotn magmatic 'system' which would make sense of Grimsvotn's inclusion. If the list had been 'most significant in HUMAN history' then Pelee 1902 would have to be in there (maybe it could replace St Helens in the original list?) because it more or less kick-started volcanology as a separate scientific discipline

wow!!!!!!!!! lots of scientist commented on here what up with that????

Wouldnt olympus mons make the list too? i meen when has it's last eruptin been and why is it really considered a "volcano"

What an ridiculous assortment of properly accomplished articles, it feels like now-a-days everyone is just copy/pasting and stealing content material on a regular basis, but I guess there's still hope in honest blogging.

I'm still learning from you, while I'm trying to reach my goals. I definitely love reading all that is written on your blog.Keep the information coming. I loved it!