14. Dante’s Peak review No.1 – Little evidence and SPIDERs

This post will examine the volcanology behind the film Dante’s Peak, there will be spoilers if you read this and have not yet seen the film…

Movie intro

Dante’s Peak is a geological disaster movie from 1997 staring Pierce Brosnan playing the part of a easily-spooked USGS volcanologist named Harry Dalton. After being called to Dante’s Peak to ‘check it out’ when the mountain started showing a couple of signs of unrest e.g. small earthquake swarms, the story rapidly evolves as the volcanologist decides to call a meeting with the towns council after just a few minuets of data collection on the flanks of the volcano. His claims of impending doom are rapidly shot down when his superior from the USGS arrives and tells him to calm down and take a vacation…

“A man who stares at rocks must have a lot on his mind.” – Mayor Rachel Wando of Dante’s peak to Harry Dalton

The danger of a panicked reaction based on little evidence

The danger of calling a town council meeting to discuss the evacuation of a town based on only a couple of hours of data collection with little prior knowledge of the volcano is risky business. This sort of rash decision making can cause large scale panic and confusion and little trust for scientists, particularly if panic is caused for no reason, and no eruption or imminent volcanic threat then occurs. With a big property developer investing in Dante’s Peak it’s possible that any news of an impeding disaster that would wipe the town off of the map would of course lead to divestment in the town and could severely affect the local economy. The town of Dante’s Peak is also a popular tourist destination, so, any words of a disaster could jeopardise this, therefore plunging the town into real economic turmoil. As suggested by Harry Dalton’s superior, it is much better to analyse the data for a little while long to assess the risk before calling a meeting with the towns council and certainly before making any sort of decision about evacuation.

However, the knowledge that something could be brewing inside the volcano does prompt the town council to dig out their long forgotten evacuation plans. This is a good thing as these should be reviewed on a fairly regular basis and adapted to account for e.g. an increased population, changes in infrastructure and changes in the types and localities of specific geological hazards. This is a very important step in hazard preparedness, and is an important task even if a volcanic disaster does not then occur.

Collecting data with a SPIDER

A team from the USGS is deployed to Dante’s Peak to monitor the volcano and to get a better idea of what is happening. Part of this data collection involves 3 of the scientists going up to the summit of the volcano with a robot named after the real SPIDER’s that are used to monitor Mount St Helen’s. The ‘Spiders’ that are used to monitor Mount St Helen’s are not robots that move around, like depicted in Dante’s Peak, but are instead static three-legged structures that can be rapidly built and deployed into areas that are inaccessible or dangerous for scientists.

‘Spider’ deployed to monitor Mount St. Helen’s in 2004 Credit: USGS

Extra information: 

https://volcanoes.usgs.gov/volcanoes/st_helens/st_helens_monitoring_106.html – everything you need to know about ‘spiders’ used by the USGS

https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/dantes_peak/ – Dante’s Peak film review on Rotten Tomatoes

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