Adventures in ACE VI: Vacuous About Volcanoes


People, it took me days to fact-check the 31 (thirty-one) pages of Science PACE 1086. I’m boggled. I have no idea how they manage to get so much wrong. It doesn’t even make sense – I mean, there are several creationist canards, and I know why those are there, but they fail at facts that even Answers in Genesis gets right. It’s like they got their information about rocks from a source translated from French, which was translated from Tagalog, which was translated from a paper written in Pig Latin by someone who’d never seen a rock in their life, but heard something about them once.

Image is a demotivational poster of a derpy looking cat. Caption says, "SMRT. I am so smrt, s-m-r-t."

Take their inability to get famous volcanoes right. Not to mention their myths about medicine.

Like many people, they use erupting volcanoes as a metaphor for holding things in until you explode. Racer relates the story of how a boy at school offended him once, and he said nothing, but brooded. He worked himself into such a lather that he didn’t turn the other cheek when the boy offended him a second time. Don’t worry – there was forgiveness all round afterward, even from God hisownself! Racer’s dad, apparently a true believer in folktales about disease, solemnly informs him that holding in anger causes diseases like toxic goiter (nope), and ulcers (wrongo), and heart problems (well, I suppose one outta three ain’t bad). Then he equates the damage angry people cause with the devastation caused by volcanoes. Like Tambora. Which he then proceeds to bork.

Tambora’s eruption was huge, yes, but not 150 km³ of material big. Upper estimates are 50 km³ – some put the total as low as 30 km³. The caldera (not crater!) it left is big, but not 11 km – try 6-7 km wide. Weirdly, after exaggerating everything else, they get the height too short by nearly 1000 feet: Tambora lost 4921 feet off its top, not 4000.

As far as their claim that “A tremendous amount of pressure, over 46,000,000 pounds per square inch (3,000,000 kg/cm2), caused the Tambora eruption,” they seem to have pulled this from their asses. I can’t find that figure anywhere, not even on creationist sites. I’d march into their offices and demand they show me their sources, but I’m not willing to inspect some dude’s sphincter.

Mr. Wheeler, who knows bupkiss about ocean floor sediments, then chimes in to tell us that “Subterranean magma is under tremendous pressure because of the heat coming up from Earth’s mantle.” Yes, he doesn’t seem to realize magma is under pressure from the confining strata and dissolved gasses. It’s not mantle heat forcing it upward: it’s bloody molten rock, it’s plenty hot enough on its own, and it migrates upward due because of its lower density. Being all hot and molten means it’s more buoyant than the cold, dense country rock around it.

He’s also confused about the anatomy of a volcano: magma isn’t traveling up a pipe, it’s going through a conduit to a vent on the surface. Basic stuff any volcano diagram explains – and, oddly, the ACE writer putting wooden exposition in Mr. Wheeler’s mouth knows the terminology for dikes, veins, and sills, so I know they’re capable of looking this stuff up.

Volcano diagram courtesy USGS. Image is an erupting strato volcano with all the bits properly labeled, including the conduit and vent.

Volcano diagram courtesy USGS.

Of course, they can parrot a few facts they found somewhere, but they don’t seem to know what this stuff actually looks like in the real world. Dikes, they tell us, “resemble a thick tree trunk sticking up out of the ground” when the surrounding sediments are worn away. They actually look more like walls – it’s volcanic necks that may sorta-kinda look like tree trunks if you close one eye and squint real hard.

All this, of course, gives Mr. Loyalton a biblical tingle in his trousers, and he informs us such talk reminds him of Paul’s thorn-in-the-flesh, which God refused to remove. (II Cor. 12:8,9). Racer proves he’s becoming a perfect little godbot by finishing Daddy’s dubious comparison: “Just as the magma formed a hard igneous rock when it cooled in the weak places in earth’s crust, God sometimes allows things to happen in the weak areas of our lives to show His strength.” That’s right, Racer: your god is a sadistic fucker who likes to torment people at their most vulnerable. Exactly right.

Before we end this little sermon and pass on to yet more nonsense about Mount St. Helens, let us explore the ways in which their further “Facts From Science” are not actually factual. For instance, in the Etna box, we’re informed that “valuable fertilizers such as potassium nitrate and various phosphates are found in the volcanic ash that is blown out of the volcano.” I’d love to see the scientific paper that gem came from, because I couldn’t find a single source that says Etna’s ash contains any such things. I did learn a bit about those two salts. Potassium nitrate is the mineral niter, which seems to mostly occur as an evaporate deposit on cave walls. Phosphate in the form of apatite can be present in volcanic ash, granted – but most soils derived from ash need some time and modification to be productive. The volcano isn’t erupting ready-made free fertilizer, as this “fact” box implies. It’s not bloody Miracle-Gro.

ACE’s fact box about Mauna Loa would have us believe it erupts every 3.5 years. The actual average is about every 6, but it varies depending on which timespan you select. I have no idea why they think the average is 1 eruption per 3.5 years since 1950. Including the 1950 eruption and concluding with the first publication of this PACE in 1986, it’s only erupted 3 times in 36 years. That’s an actual average of every 12 years. I guess their average is an example of creationist math.

Not content to get the facts of the May 18, 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens completely wrong, they return to spew further ignorance. This is just – what is this I don’t even:

Mr. Wheeler, I read in our weekly science newsletter that scientists are watching the crater of Mount St. Helens very carefully,” said Racer. “The article stated that a blister, or dome, forms in the bottom of the crater each time the volcano quits erupting. If this dome in the crater begins to grow, scientists know that the volcano is about to erupt again.”

So. Much. Wrong.

First: it’s not a blister. “Dome” in this case doesn’t mean something hollow inside like the Tacoma Dome – this is a ginormous mound of solid lava. It doesn’t form after the volcano stops erupting: it’s part of the eruption. And, let me put this in a form creationists may understand:

IF THE DOME IS GROWING, THE VOLCANO IS ERUPTING. It is actively erupting. That is why the dome is growing. DOMES DO NOT GROW IF THE VOLCANO ISN’T ACTUALLY ERUPTING.

Gah.

Don’t make me talk about the fact they illustrated the concept of a dome by showing a drawing of a volcanic neck. Okay? We’ll get to the remainder of their ignorance about igneous next week. Right now, I am D-U-N done.

Image shows a volcanic diagram. Captioning reads: "WHAT Makes A Volcano Explode? 3 key elements combine inside the earth." The magma chamber is labeled "red food coloring," the cone is labeled "baking soda," and the lava erupting from the vent is labeled "vinegar."

This diagram is actually more scientifically accurate than Science PACE 1086.

Comments

  1. petemoulton says

    “The volcano isn’t erupting ready-made free fertilizer…” No, that seems to be spewing from the pages of the book.

  2. rq says

    someone who’d never seen a rock in their life, but heard something about them once

    … who had a friend who once new a guy who said he’d seen one.

    No, that seems to be spewing from the pages of the book.

    Too bad it’s not in an actually-usable form, what with the early spring over here, it would be a real help.

    I love the last picture. It’s so wrong, but it’s just so funny.
    Also, some of these facts that you correct, Dana, I wouldn’t know a thing about if it wasn’t for you. Especially that bit about volcanic ash as fertilizer, because for some reason that little factoid seems pretty solid in my brain – living near a volcano equals good, because fertile soil. Thank you for correcting me!

    • says

      What is this “spring” of which you speak? Chicago’s having its third-snowiest winter on record or something – I picked a great year to move here.

      • naturalcynic says

        Yeah, spring. The blossoming plums budded out almost a week early this year Las Vegas]

        1980 was a year of bumper crops in the Paouse attributed to in part to the 1 – 2″ of ashfall. The agronomists think that was due to reduced soil evaporation by the ash layer – a reasonable conjecture for a relatively dry area.

      • rq says

        Well, it definitely smells like spring, what with all the snowmelt and pruned roses… I’d much rather the extended winter, to be honest. Our skating rink was up and usable barely two weeks before Nature decided that was enough.

  3. says

    Much as the creationist idiocy hurts my brain, I’m glad I’m actually learning so much from this series. Thanks, Dana, for frying your brain for our benefit!

    Also that last picture is perfect.

    • says

      Ok, looking over the Wikipedia article and the studies you cited, I see that there are different definitions of “ejecta” being used. The 50 km3 comes from treating all of the ejecta as solid rock. The Wikipedia’s number of 160 km3 is based on the volume of material, much of which was loosely coherent ash, lava, gas, and other materials significantly less dense than rock. The first article you linked (“Climatic, environmental and human consequences of the largest known historic eruption: Tambora volcano (Indonesia) 1815″) first defines the ejecta as 140 gt of magma and notes that 95% by mass of the ejecta was ash. The second report (“Volcanological study of the great Tambora eruption of 1815″) gives an estimate of “175 km3 of nepheline-normative trachyandesitic pyroclastic material (equivalent to about 50 km3 of dense rock)”.

      So to be fair, the book’s claim of 150 km3 of erupted material does seem to be within the scientific estimates. I can’t speak for other errors, but this one seems to be based on the common rookie mistake of confusing volume with mass.

      And, apparently the blogging software does not like the <sup> tag. Sorry about that.

  4. moarscienceplz says

    I’m wondering if the ‘KNO3 from volcanic ash’ craziness might have been due to conflating the obtaining of potash from WOOD ashes? This is one of the things pioneer wimmen-folk are so admired for doing, so it would be highly approved of by these bible-gnawers. Of course, even potash is not KNO3, it’s K2CO3, but it’s pretty easy to imaging these god-botherers not knowing the differences between two potassium salts.

  5. Félix Desrochers-Guérin says

    And, let me put this in a form creationists may understand:
    [random capitalisation and font colors follow]

    Well put.

  6. Trebuchet says

    I had a hard time getting past the SMRT kitty to read the article. That face looks exactly (other than being gray instead of brown) like one of ours when she’s in one of THOSE moods.

  7. ospalh says

    46,000,000 pounds per square inch (3,000,000 kg/cm2),

    Wow. Looks like they can’t even convert units. Neither the units nor the values.
    A pressure of 46 million psi is 3.23 kgf/cm^2.
    Or, more SI-ish, 317 GPa.