Bad News for Hollywood

So, you know those disaster movies where volcanoes explode like St. Helens but also spew fountains of really runny lava like Kilauea on laxatives?

I have really bad news for them, courtesy of Edward Wolfe and Thomas Pierson in Volcanic-Hazard Zonation for Mount St. Helens, Washington, 1995.

Lava flows are destructive but generally not life-threatening because they normally advance so slowly that people can walk or run away from them.


Of course, it’s never about realism anyway, which is why I avoid any disaster movie with a volcano in it – I know I’d end up ruining everyone’s movie experience by howling, “That doesn’t happen!” every ten seconds or so. (And no, I sure as shit am not going to see San Andreas – that looks even worse than the volcano flicks, and I’m not interested in dying from apoplexy at my tender age. I will probably eventually watch Pompeii because some of you asked me to years ago, and I can now watch it here at home, where I can scream into a pillow so as not to disturb the neighbors.) I’m not a fan, is what I’m trying to say. Some people enjoy disaster films despite (or because of) the absurdity. I have a lot more fun with reality. I mean, this is the greatest shit ever!

Did you hear that crackling?! Did you see the little pieces of volcanic glass popping up like popcorn kernels in a hot pan? Did you seem them cook burritos and marshmallows on a bloody pahoehoe flow? And hear the squeals of pure science-geek joy? Oh, yes. That’s my kinda flick! You can see the whole video here.

So yeah, those of you who like your volcano disaster flicks can enjoy the ridiculously-funny lava and the volcanic bombs that set off huge gasoline explosions wherever they land and stuff. I’m just gonna enjoy watching geologists amble around the edges of active lava fields.

Image shows a steaming black lava flow oozing onto a grassy field. It appears to have eaten a fence.. A geologist in a red shirt and a backpack skirts close to the edge.
A USGS geologist maps the margin of the active lava flow in an open field west of the town of Pāhoa on Oct. 26, 2014. Image and caption courtesy USGS.

I mean, that is so ridiculously epically awesome – except for the people of Pāhoa: I’m so sorry Kilauea ate your town.

And now Ima go watch my favorite lava lake video of all time.

Bad News for Hollywood

41 thoughts on “Bad News for Hollywood

  1. rq

    Yep, Tony, Hollywood avalanches – really slow lava flows! ;)
    Hey, I like occasional disaster movies, precisely because I can yell at the screen (and I usually have a similarly-minded fellow audience, so that makes two of us yelling at the screen, though we focus on different aspects). It’s very cathartic. :)

  2. 3

    I cringe every time one of these comes out, because my students seem to think they are documentaries. It does give me the opportunity to correct some misconceptions.
    This is a great video that I use in my classroom. Lots of truly awesome footage, and good explanations of what is happening.

  3. 4

    On the plus side, one of those Hollywood movies made me go learn all about Mt Ranier after moving to Seattle :) Also scaring myself for a while, hot mud flowing at 40mph made me worried that I wouldn’t get my horse out in time (she lived in one of the town closest to Ranier). But that was about it.

    After that I did lots of reading on Mt St Helen’s so I’ve been really enjoying all your articles about it!

  4. 5

    But I LIKE scientifically absurd disaster movies! It’s like watching an alternate reality constructed entirely out of tall tales and urban legends.

    Thus explains why I’ve probably seen damn near every ZOMGmeteoritemoonleavingorbitearthcoredyingminesaresafefrompyroplasticflow production presented by see-fee/siffy/SyFy at three in the morning.


  5. 6

    I’ve been following the Pahoa news since it first became threatened. The town is, in fact, basically unscathed. A single house on the outskirts got burned down. A Buddhist cemetery was partially covered. And the garbage transfer station was partially surrounded, but undamaged. The flow tips nearest town have been inactive for several months now; the current breakouts are up near the Pu’u O’o vent.

    The most interesting activity recently has been the rise of the lava lake in the Overlook Crater, spilling onto the floor of Haleama’uma’u. That’s receded now.

    Hawaiian Volcano Observatory site, for the latest news:
    A thread started by me at CosmoQuest:

  6. 7

    Thanks for the vid. I got all teary-eyed watching them play with the lava.

    My daughter got to watch The Core in junior-high school. I dunno if they were being serious, or ironic, or using it to teach good scienc.

  7. 10

    There was a kind of lava flow that may have had disaster-movie low viscosity: komatiite lava. I say “was” because most of it flowed in the first half of the Earth’s history or thereabouts.

    In a previous reply here, I imagined myself a time traveler visiting the Archean and marveling at how runny a lava flow was, while being careful to watch my oxygen.

  8. 11

    Ooh, I don’t think I have seen that yet!

    The moon leaving earth’s orbit one is probably my favorite. Or maybe the one about ice tornadoes, starring Brittney Murphy.

  9. 12

    fyi – Seismologist Lucy Jones watches San Andreas so you don’t have to

    First big howler. San Andreas the movie pretends that California has a subduction zone. We can only have a M8.2
    — Dr. Lucy Jones (@DrLucyJones) May 27, 2015

    First big safety message- if the shaking is bad enough to damage a dam you won’t be able to run
    — Dr. Lucy Jones (@DrLucyJones) May 27, 2015

    Yes! Drop, cover& hold on. The right thing to do in an earthquake
    — Dr. Lucy Jones (@DrLucyJones) May 27, 2015

  10. rq

    The ice tornadoes were good, indeed.
    They used to show the really bad ones at like 1AM on one of the local channels, surprisingly enough. I miss them.

  11. 16

    Oh, Dante’s Peak. They float across an acid lake in a little aluminum boat. So realistic! Poor Grandma.

    Category 6 starts Randy Quaid! That is absolutely delicious. *puts that and Haeundae on the list*

  12. rq

    I’d forgotten about the lake of acid!!! ZOMG… I think that was the highlight of the movie, actually. Poor Grandma, indeed… I wanted the Pierce Brosnan character to die (even though I knew he wouldn’t, because rugged romantic lead). This is also why I liked Pompeii, because of the ending (I mean, besides the fantastic volcano effects). I was all YAAASSSSSS!!!
    It’s really weird, though – I always want More!Death! in my disaster movies, but I have a strong dislike for human-on-human violent movies that have high body counts.
    Anyway. :) I think we’re off-topic.
    But I’m going to acquire Category 6, I think, make some popcorn, and watch it sometime soon.

  13. 18

    Then there is the 1997 movie volcano where a volcano pops up and scatters ash and lava in Hollywood. The hero manages to divert the flow to a drainage channel and it flows to the sea. (at least a 10 mile long flow btw).

  14. 19

    Have you seen the footage by the guy who flew the quadcopter into the volcano in iceland? It’s on youtube. Pretty darned amazing POV footage hovering in the caldera.

  15. 20

    On the plus side, one of those Hollywood movies made me go learn all about Mt Ranier after moving to Seattle :) Also scaring myself for a while, hot mud flowing at 40mph made me worried that I wouldn’t get my horse out in time

    If you want something to really keep you up at night, you can read about the cascadia subduction zone.

    I wish Dana’d write about it… Maybe,,, if I drop hints…

  16. 22

    Seeing is believing until a good teacher sets ya straight. ;-) Thank you for making the next generation much smarter! I wish I could come hang out in your classroom and watch lava flow videos.

  17. 23

    Rainier, to me, is more terrifying than St. Helens. So many people in the line of fire, and it could unleash a lahar with no warning. I used to think volcanoes didn’t kill people without letting them know first, but not true. Argh. Glad you never had to race a lahar to save your horse, although I’ll betcha we could make one hell of a disaster film about it!

  18. 24

    If you can convince your Inner Editor that it’s okay to shut off for the next ninety minutes, yes, they are awesome. But mine won’t shut up even when I try duct tape, ropes, and a soundproof room…

    I did love the hell out of Maximum Overdrive, though. My Inner Editor was so busy laughing at the killer semis that it didn’t notice the comet tail nonsense.

  19. 25

    Oh, neato! I just skimmed that old page I linked and didn’t know if the town had been eaten since. I’m a terrible person, I have to admit this to someone: I love watching towns get munched by lava, even though I know I’d be hella sad if I lived there and I feel bad for everybody. But it’s even more cool when the lava noses up to your backyard for a look-see and then behaves itself. :-)

  20. 26

    Oh, gawds, I hope they weren’t being serious.

    You’re welcome for the vid! I was hoping everybody would love it. We oughta see about getting the ETEV folk together for a burrito cookout on Kilauea- and I’ve got a great recipe for lava-baked chicken, too.

  21. 29

    I about screamed when I saw the trailer and it showed enough of the results of the quake for me to understand it had to be a subduction zone, not San Andreas. My outrage made me sputter, and B just grinned at me.

    Good to know they got one important thing right. Hope people will remember that no matter what kind of quake they end up in!

  22. 34

    I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to do it. I don’t think I’d be able to live here after researching that. Every time I’m on a double-decker road or in a tunnel around here, I’m white-knuckling the steering wheel hoping the full rip-nine doesn’t hit right then. And Lockwood and I get really tense whenever we’re doing the Oregon beaches. We get out of the car and look for the nearest high ground before we do anything else. And we try never to spend the night in a hotel at sea level.

    Volcanoes are scary. Subduction zone quakes are beyond nightmares.

    Someday, though, I’ll do you up a post on some of the ghost forests and tsunami deposits. ;-) There’s a ghost forest I’ve been meaning to visit for ages, hoping to get to it within a couple of years. In the meantime, if you haven’t read “Totally Psyched for the Full Rip-Nine,” do. It left me gibbering in terror, but damn, is it ever incredible writing!

  23. rq

    Stahp lining up such interesting posts. I’m already salivating. And now I’ll just be living in anticipation until you do. Grr. :)

  24. rq

    I sit on my Inner Editor and let my Repressed Critic come out. Much better swear lexicon, that one has, and a better idea of when to resign oneself to the badness and go with the stupidity. I’m tellin’ ya, it’s the “I can’t watch it’s so bad but I gotta see how bad it really gets” type of viewing, esp. when you know you’re in for something utterly uninformed and stupid, so you make it a drinking game or just a tally of foolishness, and… it’s really enjoyably cathartic.
    Better than yelling at the kids.

  25. rq

    Also, if needed, the Repressed Critic just punches the Inner Editor in the face. “Shut up, we’re watching this so I can laugh at it!”
    Yes, I have a violent headspace.

  26. 40

    Heh, you and second eldest kid would get along famously. I’ve tried to get her to watch with me, but she has to stop the movie every five minutes and go “But mom. BUT MOM. MOM. That can’t actually happen. That isn’t real. Okay? It’s not even funny! Why are you laughing? WHAT. What. is. so. funny.” Third kid just wordlessly moves through the room with his eyeballs glued to the inside of his skull, smirking, as is his way. There’s hope for youngest kid yet though, and Eldest understands 100% (and will watch more ludicrous things than I, repeatedly, whereas I’m more of a one and done awful movie viewer).

  27. 41

    Thanks – I do my best. You are welcome to come and hang out anytime – it’s always nice to have another adult in the room. :-) And thanks to you for giving me all kinds of food for thought, even if some of it is pretty damn depressing. Sometimes I need to be pushed out of my comfort zone.
    Also, a while back (apparently while you and B were off playing in the mountains), I sent you a couple of screen shots of earthquakes, but I’m not sure I sent it to a valid email address. Did it ever show up? I also know that you get tons of email and it may have simply gotten lost in the shuffle.

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