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Prof warns of volcanic threat to south-east Australia: that word ‘overdue’ again (updated) 5 July 2011

Posted by admin in Australia, natural hazards, volcano monitoring.

Professor Bernie Joyce of Melbourne University is reported as warning, again, that south-east Australia is ‘overdue’ for a volcanic eruption – ‘well overdue’, in fact, according to a story today headlined ‘Victoria’s overdue for volcano – warning’ in Melbourne’s Herald-Sun newspaper:

Scientists have told a conference it is only a matter of time before volcanoes erupt in Victoria, and warned there is no disaster plan for when it happens.

According to scientists at Melbourne University, a series of volcanoes in Victoria’s west are well overdue to erupt.

Eruptions should occur in the region about every 2000 years, but the south-east of the country hasn’t experienced any volcanic activity since Mt Gambier erupted over 5000 years ago.

The paper concerned was presented at the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics Conference in Melbourne, an event which has a silly subtitle (‘Earth on the Edge’) and a complete mess of a website. In a model of how not to use the web to communicate important information, the full programme for the conference appears only to be available as a 255-page PDF document, so it’s not as easy as it should be to find the descriptions of individual contributions. Two papers by Bernie Joyce are listed in this mammoth publication: E. B. Joyce, R. Hughes, ‘Analysing the spatial distribution of volcanic activity over time: the young monogenetic Newer Volcanic Province of southeastern Australia’, and E. B. Joyce, ‘A new assessment of risk and hazard for the young volcanoes of Australia’. It sounds as if the latter, sole-author, paper is the one at the bottom of this report, but without knowing what it actually says it’s hard to judge how fair the Herald-Sun‘s reporting of it is – whether the term ‘overdue’ actually appears, for example. Then again, the things Professor Joyce does say on this topic are pretty well guaranteed to feed sensationalized headlines, as we have seen before.

In any case, the word ‘overdue’ is never a wise choice when it comes to the behaviour of volcanoes. They are not trains and do not run to a timetable. Such loaded terminology is always going to feed sensationalism in the press and create a misleading and unnecessary public apprehension of danger. There is a balance between appropriate preparedness based on a rational assessment of potential hazards and volcano fear-mongering. Scientists cannot exert much control over the way their words are twisted in the world of the media – which is pretty clueless on volcanic matters as a rule anyway – but reputable scientists (even ones with books to sell) do have a responsibility not to feed the fear-mongers.

UPDATE. Here we go: ‘Volcanoes “due to erupt”‘ (Melbourne Age), ‘Aussie volcanoes due for eruption’ (The Australian), ‘Australian regions should brace for volcanic eruptions soon’ (International Business Times). That last report is particularly ludicrous, with its advice that entire regions should ‘brace for volcanic eruptions’ – grab a table or something, quick – and its claim that research ‘has verified [verified!] that Western Victoria and South Australia are overdue for an eruption that could potentially affect thousands of local residents’. This really is wretched scare-mongering stuff.

FURTHER UPDATE. The idiocy continues. Earth tremors affecting Melbourne? Definitely a sign of approaching volcanic geotectonic mayhem, says the Herald-Sun: ‘The biggest aftershock from yesterday’s 4.6 magnitude earth tremor was a forecast that Victoria’s dormant volcanoes are overdue to erupt. … Seismologists said aftershocks would be felt for days. But the future painted by scientists in Melbourne for today’s Congress of Geodesy and Geophysics was more apocalyptic. Scientists said volcanoes in the Western District were overdue to blow’. And here’s the text all the papers are merrily recycling: a University of Melbourne press release, headed ‘Australian volcano eruptions overdue, new study confirms’.

Victoria’s overdue for volcano – warningHerald-Sun, 5 July 2011

The Volcanism Blog


1. Beano - 6 July 2011

Ah….. Professor Bernie Joyce – Australia’s equivalent of your own Professor Bill McGuire

2. Colin Weaver - 6 July 2011

Herald Sun = Detestable rag. This nonsense runs in the media here about once a year. What Dr Joyce is really trying to say is that Southwest Victoria has a history of monogenetic volcanism, and should have some contingency plans in place similar to Auckland.

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