Don’t Believe Everything You See on YouTube: Parícutin Edition


I’d like to conduct an experiment someday. I’d like to gather together a group of experts in a particular field and show them a few popular science video clips relevant to their areas of expertise. Would they groan, howl and laugh as much as I did during these three short clips?

The sad fact is, even august purveyors of information can get things hysterically wrong. And I use the word “hysterically” advisedly – I mean they seem to be pining for disaster. They’re like the poor Angahuan tourist guide who, gazing upon the serene, extinct edifice of Parícutin, said wistfully, “It would be nice if the volcano would erupt again – just a little bit.”

I feel you, amigo. I’ve said the same thing gazing into Mount St. Helens’s crater.

Britannica and Discovery seem to have the same yearning. Watch these two clips, and you’ll see. You should watch them because they are of a cinder cone being born, and they are awesome, despite the bit o’ wrong.

“Now it is dormant. Its activity seems to have come to an end. But we know that some volcanoes have remained inactive for hundreds, even thousands, of years, and then, unexpectedly, erupted again.”

Yeah, you just go on telling yourself that if it makes you feel better, buddy.

This next video comes with a trigger warning for those who become upset at egregious mispronunciation of Spanish words.

“It has not erupted since, but it’s not dead, either. At any moment, Parícutin could erupt again.”

Translation: “Doo-doo-DOOM. You’re all gonna diiiiieeeee!!!!!!!!!!! Ah-hahahahaha! It could happen any second! Mwa-ha-ha!”

These two videos combined inspired me to write a geopoem in the style of Buffalo Bill’s by ee cummings.

Paricutin's by Dana Hunter. Thank you, ee cummings.

Paricutin’s by Dana Hunter. A screenshot with the proper formatting, which WordPress hates and will not reproduce without more pleading and cajoling than I wish to engage in. Thank you, ee cummings.

Parícutin’s
defunct
which used to
erupt rubblyrough-black
lava
and shoot onetwothreefourfive bombsjustlikethat
Jesus
it was a feisty one
and what i want to know is
how do you like your brandnew cinder cone
Señor Pulido

The key term here is “defunct.” Parícutin is defunct. It is definitely deceased. It is an ex-active volcano. It’s a monogenetic volcano – it shot its charge and is now resting in peace. So all of those announcers warning of possible future mayhem in dolorous tones – they’re wrong. I hope the poem helps them remember this fact.

But I have good news for them – the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt Parícutin is located in is definitely not defunct. We may not see it in our lifetimes, but a new cinder cone could pop up there at any moment. And it has plenty of volcanoes that go boom. There are several just around Mexico City alone, plus there’s the possibility that a cinder cone could rise up in a Mexico City suburb somewhere, bursting through someone’s living room floor in a fissure of fire, spewing molten rock all over the sofa and teevee, making life quite exciting for the residents and causing the neighborhood to undergo a rather drastic rezoning from residential to volcano. Is that not enough potential mayhem, pop sci program writers? Must you invent entirely fictitious possible future eruptions of Parícutin in order to frighten viewers into watching?

Sadly, I suspect the answer is yes. We’ll probably never convince them otherwise – fear sells, and well they know it. This is why I try to keep a large block of salt handy when watching science programming on the teevee – or, in this case, on YouTube. But those errors, while egregious to those of us who know what a cinder cone actually does, were but minor quibbles compared to the howler in this next video. Seriously, I laughed so hard in the dead of night I thought my neighbor may come up to see what was wrong with me. Watch this, and see if you can spot what had tears of mirth streaming from my eyes.

Have you got it? If so, have you recovered yet? You were probably lulled by the fact it started out so beautifully factual – I’d been sort of serenely enjoying the animations, nodding my head along to the story, thinking, “Oh, yes, tremors must be very common along that belt,” and then bam. It’s like the narrator’s fact finder made a wrong turn at Albuquerque. And this happens:

“What had once been a peaceful cornfield was now a major volcano 3188 meters high. Parícutin is the seventh largest volcano in the world.”

This will come as a nasty shock to volcanoes like Parinacota, which by elevation above sea level, is the 7th tallest according to the Global Volcanism Project. The number quoted is Parícutin’s elevation above sea level, and the narrator fails even by that measure. 6348m is greater than 3188m by, like, a lot.

Parícutin is awesome because it was a volcano we got to watch grow up from crack-in-the-ground to strapping young cinder cone, but it’s not even the highest volcanic summit on its own continent – Pico de Orizaba is. Our poor Parí is dwarfed by literally every stratovolcano in the country. It’s only 424 meters (1391 feet) tall. Like all cinder cones, it’s short, and not terribly explosive. It only reached a VEI of 4 – respectable, yeah, but ten times smaller than the May 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, and it took nine years to achieve a tiny fraction of what St. Helens did in an afternoon. It’s not the seventh largest volcanic anything that I’m able to determine – although I’d argue it’s in the top ten in coolness. I mean, it suddenly appeared in poor Señor Pulido’s field and grew into a robust young volcano within a week, watched by people start-to-finish, and caught on film in the 1940s – if that’s not cool, no volcano is cool, and we might as well just shut up shop right now and start talking about other geological things.

At the risk of making Rosetta Stones all volcanoes all the time, I’ll write up the true story of Parícutin someday fairly soon – and I hope that I can prove that a volcano doesn’t have to be among the biggest or most dangerous or liable to awaken at any time in order for its eruption to be one of the coolest geological events in history.

This spectacular nighttime time-exposure of México's Parícutin volcano in 1948 shows strombolian ejection of incandescent blocks and their trails as they roll down the slopes of the cone. Parícutin is renowned as the volcano that was born in a cornfield in 1943. It grew to a height of more than 150 m within the first week of its appearance, and remained active until 1952.  Photo by Carl Fries, 1948 (U.S. Geological Survey). Image and caption courtesy the Smithsonian/The Dynamic Earth.

This spectacular nighttime time-exposure of México’s Parícutin volcano in 1948 shows strombolian ejection of incandescent blocks and their trails as they roll down the slopes of the cone. Parícutin is renowned as the volcano that was born in a cornfield in 1943. It grew to a height of more than 150 m within the first week of its appearance, and remained active until 1952. Photo by Carl Fries, 1948 (U.S. Geological Survey). Image and caption courtesy the Smithsonian/The Dynamic Earth.

I think we’ve also proved that respected names as well as unknown folk can be hilariously wrong about science. If you run across an error in any video clips you’re watching, send me a link – you never know what adventures error correction may launch us on.

References

Fries, C.F. et al (1993): Movie footage of the activity of Paricutin Volcano, Michoacan, Mexico, 1945-1952. USGS Open-File Report 93-197-A.

Luhr, J.F. and Delgado-Granados, H. (1997): Aerial Examination of Volcanoes Along the Front of the Western Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt and a Visit to Parícutin. International Association of Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth’s Interior.

 

Previously published at Scientific American/Rosetta Stones.

Comments

  1. rq says

    So when are you going to hate-watch Pompeii?
    By the way, I saw it. And most of it is horrendous, especially the volcano bits, but I loved the ending, and I’m a sucker for romances that involve riding around on grey horses. And hot black gladiator sidekicks (who never seem to get the attention and lovin’ they deserve in movies, honestly – they shouldn’t be sidekicks).

    But I’m glad to read more about volcanoes. Makes me wish I could see one in action, just a little one, from a reasonably safe (but not too distant) vantage point.

  2. Onamission5 says

    Misinformation that volcanoes can come back to life at any moment made me somewhat terrified to drive past Black Butte off I-5 as a child. I could not for the life of me figure out why anyone in their right mind would build a freeway directly beside something that could kill us all with fire with no notice, and I wouldn’t accept my mom’s assurances that the butte was long and permanently dead because that’s not what nature shows said about volcanoes! Nature shows always said things like “it was believed that Giant Fire Mountain was extinct but then it came back to life and killed everything in a 200 mile vicinity. Now we will show you the horrible aftermath of lahars and flaming rocks raining from the sky and lookit this village buried in ash.”

    (our trip to Lassen was pretty cool though even if my 9 year old self was convinced we were going to die any second)

  3. Lithified Detritus says

    Good work as usual.
    I didn’t know about the Global Volcanism Project website. Looks like a great resource.
    Since we can’t see the video, can you clue us in as to the nature of the howler?

  4. Al Dente says

    Onamission5 @2

    Misinformation that volcanoes can come back to life at any moment made me somewhat terrified to drive past Black Butte off I-5 as a child.

    I was visiting Yellowstone National Park some years ago and a Park Ranger explained how we were all in the caldera of a supervolcano. Sure, he promised us that it wouldn’t erupt any time soon but that’s what they want you to believe!