Well that didn’t take long. It’s been less than a week since the Indonesian earthquake and tsunami on the island of Sulawesi robbed thousands of people of their lives, and only a couple of days since Soputan volcano, located on the very same island, erupted – and, already, misinformation is everywhere. As was expected, the usual outlets have conjured up their own hyper-dramatic, inaccurate tales. At the same time, various nefarious hoaxes have also proliferated online.
“The right information can save lives. The wrong information can cause confusion, mistrust, and can damage the local economy” even without a disaster taking place, says Janine Krippner, a volcanologist at Concord University. Although some may know the difference between objective truth and fake news, Krippner notes that everyone is faced with an increasingly global spread of misinformation “to the point that it affects communities on the other side of the world during a crisis.”
With that in mind, I’ve been scouring the Web over the past 24 hours or so to find the most persistent or most egregious misconceptions relating to the situation in Sulawesi. Let’s get debunking, shall we?
Nope, The Volcanic Eruption and the Tsunami Didn’t Happen in the Same Place
This is an understandable misconception. While it’s true that both happened on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, it’s worth pointing out that this is one of the largest islands in the world. This bizarrely shaped landmass is about the same size as Missouri in terms of area. In this sense, the quake, tsunami and Soputan paroxysm are a bit like the eruption that recently took place on the summit and slopes of Hawaii’s Kilauea: it was devastating to human populations nearby, but lava only covered around 0.2% of the entirety of Big Island. Most of it was untouched.
Of course, millions have been affected by the tsunami and quake, and some may be affected by the eruption. There will be huge movements of people over the next few weeks and months as recovery efforts continue, and the country’s infrastructure and economy will be pushed to the limits. In this sense, plenty are affected. Nevertheless, the tsunami-hit region and the site of the Soputan eruption aren’t near each other at all. Palu, the city that bore the brunt of the tsunami, is in Central Sulawesi, whereas Soputan is found on the top of north Sulawesi, hundreds of kilometres away.
The only way the population affected by the tsunami could be directly impacted by the eruption would be if ash from Soputan were to drift towards them; breathing it in can cause respiratory problems, especially those already in poor health. Additionally, ash could shut down the airport near Soputan. There’s no indication that this may happen yet, but it’s a possibility. This airport is a major hub used for aid relief at the moment, so no-one wants to see it close.
Nope, That’s Not Footage of Soputan Erupting
So far, the eruption at Soputan isn’t proving to be dangerous. No-one lives in the exclusion zone, so the lava flows, pyroclastic flows and ash clouds seem to not be impacting anyone on the ground for the moment.
Some outlets, however, seem to want to make it seem far more devastating than it really is. They’ve been using footage of volcanic eruptions from elsewhere, including at the ongoing eruption at the baby volcano at the heart of Krakatau – undoubtedly Indonesia’s most famous volcano – and masquerading it as footage of Soputan.
I don’t mean using a volcanic cover image of a generic eruption in place of real shots of Soputan, by the way. In that case, if it’s clear that image is not of the current eruption, that’s fine. What I’m referring to here is news reports that are using images of dramatic lava flows (normally from Hawaii’s Kilauea) and pyroclastic flows (normally from Sinabung, another volcano in Indonesia) and pretending that’s what’s happening at Soputan.
Giving false impressions of what the eruption is really like can create panic, not only in those on the ground, but in visitors or potential visitors to the country. This can really impact local tourism endeavours, which is particularly devastating for those communities that need that revenue to keep afloat.
If you’re wondering which Soputan eruptions images are real and which are fake, check out Sutopo Purwo Nugroho’s Twitter account. As the spokesperson for the Indonesian disaster agency monitoring the situation, he’s spending an awful lot of time highlighting hoax images and accounts of not just the eruption, but the earthquake and tsunami too.
Nope, The Ring of Fire Isn’t “Shifting”
It was inevitable that the infamous Ring of Fire was going to come up. I’ve seen plenty of headlines and stories out there in the last few hours that are claiming that scenes in Indonesia, which certainly is on the Ring of Fire, are harbingers of geological doom that’s just around the corner.
Whenever there’s a series of earthquakes or a particularly resplendent volcanic eruption on this Pacific boundary, you often see stories that make much the same end-of-the-world flavoured claims. It happened most recently when an earthquake sequence took place off the coast of Oregon and California, setting off another cacophony of prophecies that were entirely unfounded.
The Ring of Fire features 90 percent of the world’s earthquakes, and 75 percent of the world’s volcanoes. Quakes and eruptions are exactly what you’d expect here. In fact, if there weren’t any, then that would be incredibly strange.
Each quake, and each eruption, is idiosyncratic; no two are alike. They are also, for the most part, not connected in any way: their emergence in time is a random distribution, which means you can’t find interconnected patterns in the chaos. When one fault slips and creates and earthquake, it may upset some faults that are *very close* to it, but this effect diminishes significantly with only a short distance. Quakes will not trigger others like it in different continents. Volcanoes are much the same, but are even less connected; eruptions don’t trigger other eruptions at all.
As Ken Hudnut, a California Institute of Technology geophysicist and earthquake expert, told me back in August, tremors are “pretty much randomly distributed.” Scientists are always on the look out for any patterns, but so far they haven’t found any, suggesting any patterns others do find are nothing more than imaginary.
The Ring of Fire is also a bit of a misnomer. Volcanologist Erik Klemetti explains this in more detail here, but the short story is that it has no real geological use. The Pacific Plate boundaries with other tectonic plates around it do form a “ring” shape, but it doesn’t mean that all these boundaries are interconnected.
So no, there’s no Ring of Fire “shift” happening. Indonesia is riddled with faults and volcanoes, so it often features eruptions and earthquakes. This is entirely normal.
The quake in this case got everyone’s attention because it produced a deadly tsunami, but that doesn’t mean another quake will do the same. Similarly, there are dozens of volcanoes around the world erupting at any one time, including many in Indonesia. Soputan is a particularly unpredictable and hazardous volcano that features a human population living nearby in its shadow, which again is why its eruption was cause for concern and attention.
Nope, Indonesia is Not Getting “Ripped Apart”
This utterly madcap claim appeared in what is unequivocally the most histrionic tabloid around. It seems to be pinned to the fact that three volcanoes are erupting right now in Indonesia. That’s literally it. I can assure you that the country of Indonesia is, in fact, not being physically torn to pieces by any of this geological activity.
Nope, There’s No Indication Another Huge Quake Is Incoming
As spotted by the Guardian, some have been claiming that a magnitude 8.1 quake is about to hit Central Sulawesi.
Here’s the thing about predicting earthquakes: it’s impossible. Seismologists can say roughly where quakes will take place, because they know which parts of the world are seismically active and which are often not. They can also give forecasts which estimate how powerful a future quake may be given a certain time period – normally decades – based on mathematical laws about time, energy and seismicity.
What they cannot do is say exactly when, where and how powerful a future quake at any one location might be. That’s the seismological Holy Grail, but it’s far from being uncovered. Unlike volcanic eruptions, quakes don’t even give off warning signs before they take place. The best scientists can do is to advise communities on how best to prepare themselves for the next event, which is inevitable, no matter what form of shaking it takes.
Unlike plenty of the other rumours, this one looks like it’s being spread mainly by word of mouth. The idea is that, if people panic and leave upon hearing the (fake) news, then thieves can burgle their homes.