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Puyehue-Cordón Caulle corked: a small-scale case-study of media sensationalism 24 June 2011

Posted by admin in Chile, eruptions, Puyehue.

Even by the standards of sensationalized volcano stories in the mainstream media the headline in the Sydney Morning Herald and some other news sources today is pretty silly: ‘Red alert as “cork” plugs volcano’. This headline does what such headlines so often do: create a false sense of an urgent, dangerous situation by misrepresenting the facts. That little word ‘as’ is very important in the creation of this effect. There is indeed a red alert at Puyehue-Cordón Caulle, there has been since the eruption began: but by putting the word ‘as’ after the words ‘red alert’ an entirely baseless impression is created that the red alert is the result of whatever situation is described after the ‘as’. By the third word of the headline an expectation of potential disaster is established in the reader’s mind, and s/he is thus pre-disposed to react with alarm and concern to the news that a ‘cork’ is plugging the volcano. The word ‘cork’ itself confirms the impression — everyone knows what corks do, they contain pressure and when they are released an explosion results. This is made explicit in the original AFP story: ‘Geologists said a “cork” of lava, which emerged on Tuesday and was blocking even more lava from spewing forth, had the potential to create a huge build-up in pressure’. The headline rests neatly on that word ‘cork’ in the middle: the words preceding it prepare the reader for danger, the words after it confirm the nature of that danger, and another volcano scare story is set merrily upon its way.

By the time the AFP story has reached Earthweek it has become enveloped in a general air of breathless anxiety, as a standard bulletin from SERNAGEOMIN on the activity of the volcano becomes ‘an urgent warning’ about building pressure and powerful blasts: ‘geologists issued an urgent warning late Wednesday, saying a “cork” of lava had begun to block the volcano’s crater, building up pressure that could lead to another powerful blast’. The bulletins on Puyehue-Cordón Caulle, by the way, are normally released by SERNAGEOMIN around 15:30-16:00 local time, but of course it’s much more exciting to talk of ‘an urgent warning’ issued ‘late Wednesday’ than of ‘a standard bulletin’ issued ‘in the middle of the afternoon, as usual’.

The facts upon which the story is based in no way justify the alarmism of the Australian headlines, still less the utter rubbish from Earthweek. The ‘red alert’, as stated above, was in place anyway, and has not been changed as a result of the current situation. The ‘cork’ plugging the volcano is no big deal. Here’s what SERNAGEOMIN actually reports in its most recent bulletin for Puyehue-Cordón Caulle: ‘the possibility of an explosive event still remains because of possible obstruction of the conduit by the lava erupted and/or changes in the dynamics of the eruption, although there is little likelihood that it will reach the magnitude of the initial eruptive phase’. That is standard wording for a standard situation: the volcano has begun erupting lava, cooled lava may block the conduit creating the circumstances for explosive activity caused by continuing pressure within the volcanic system. This is not a disaster movie scenario, just one that needs careful watching (which is what SERNAGEOMIN is doing).

There is a particularly Australian context to the Sydney Morning Herald‘s daft headline. The flight disruptions caused by ash from Puyehue-Cordón Caulle have given Australia a lot of problems, and it’s understandable that Australian newspapers and their readers are sensitive about volcanic activity — particularly the threat of more explosive activity and more ash. But that’s all the more reason not to over-react, to get the facts right, and not resort to lazy sensationalism.

Red alert as ‘cork’ plugs volcanoSydney Morning Herald, 24 June 2011
Red alert as ‘cork’ plugs volcanoThe Age, 24 June 2011
Experts warn Chile volcano could explode again – AFP, 24 June 2011
Chile volcano could explode againHerald Sun, 24 June 2011
Aviation halted for second week by Chile eruption – Earthweek, 24 June 2011

Global Volcanism Program: Puyehue-Cordón Caulle volcanic complex – summary information for the PCCVC (1507-15=)
Servicio Nacional de Geología y Minería – website of Chile’s SERNAGEOMIN
OVDAS-SERNAGEOMIN bulletins for Puyehue-Cordón Caulle – PDF files are available from this page of the OVDAS website

The Volcanism Blog

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