Is an Icelandic volcano about to erupt? – the issue of bad journalism

In July 2017 a news article appeared in the Independent with the headline:

‘Iceland could be about to experience a huge eruption in a matter of hours’ – Independent 29/07/2017

This article has caused some outrage and debate amongst the scientific community on social media, and has generally been regarded as scare-mongering. In this post I want to share my view of this article and spread the word on the issues of bad journalism. As a scientist I feel a duty to share these issues with the general public, and not keep our debates within the scientific community. This post is therefore written from my personal opinion, and I do not claim to be an expert in Icelandic volcanoes, eruption precursors or journalism.

Lack of proper research

The first issue that I have with this article is the fact that the journalist only ever quotes information from one source. Whether the information is correct or not, something of this scale should always be backed up by another source of information. If this isn’t done then the arguments raised are just quotes of someone’s opinion, which might not be the opinion of, for example, the scientific community, or the experts who research this particular phenomenon or locality, etc.

The second issue is the credibility of the source of information that is quoted. In this case, the journalist has sourced all of their information from a blog written by and maintained by a group of volcanophiles. These people don’t claim to be experts in any way, but enjoy sussing out different scenarios and trying to understand the many aspects of volcanology (much like I also do in this blog).

The original blog post

The original article which has been used by the newspaper for their piece on an impending eruption in Iceland is a detailed piece related to the occurrence of another earthquake swarm in Iceland. Various earthquake swarms occur regularly in Iceland each month, and it is possible that this activity is related to the movement of magma beneath the surface.

Earthquake swarms

It is true that an earthquake swarm can be one of several precursors to an eruption, however, it can also lead to absolutely nothing. Often, in Iceland these swarms occur and nothing changes at the surface, and no eruptions occur. These things take place at many volcanoes around the world and never amount to anything. Where earthquake swarms take place alongside other precursors, such as changing composition of volcanic gases or deformation of the grounds surface, or over a more prolonged period of time, an eruption may well occur. Although, as I mention in my talk ‘Predicting the Unpredictable‘ all of this could lead to an eruption, or, nothing at all.

Volcano colour code

The authorities in Iceland often change the colour code of a volcano that is experiencing an earthquake swarm, increasing its warning level. This is a precautionary measure, taken to alert aviation (and locals and tourists) to the heightened risk of a potential eruption, but, does not mean that an eruption is necessarily imminent. At time the Iceland MET Office data shows that the only volcano ‘showing signs of elevated unrest’ is Katla, which is not the sight of the currently debated earthquake swarm.

My advice for anyone worried about an eruption

If you are concerned about an eruption in Iceland, my best advice would be to follow the advice of officials in Iceland. To listen to any news from official sources, and to not lay victim to scare mongering by journalists on a slow-news-day with little regard for reliable sources of information. One source of reliable information comes from the Iceland MET Office.

Conclusion

It is wrong to blame the person behind the original volcanocafe blog post, and instead it is better to lay criticism to the information that was wrongly taken out of context by the journalist of the Independant. Blogs like this shouldn’t be abused in the way that the Independant has abused volcanocafe, and this is a worrying event to have witnessed as a blogger of volcanology myself.

I’m sure that people will continue to watch the events in Iceland, as we all do every month, to see what will happen here, and at other volcanoes within the country.

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