top of page

Random Thoughts About Special Effects

If you’ve watched movies, you’ve seen special effects. They have been used with everything in a film, from a spectacular explosion on a battleship to a little dog going poo on a front lawn. (I’m serious. In the movie John Wick they have digitally-created dog poo.) Though most special effects today are digital, we still find movies with practical special effects and stunts. 

Special effects lead to thoughts about volcanoes.

I remember I used to be really disappointed in some of the computer-generated special effects that were around in the late 1990s. I went with my family to the theater to watch the movie Dante’s Peak and the eruption looked so fake. It was obviously computer generated. Since then, things have gotten a lot better when it comes to computer effects, but you still get some occasional duds.


Today I occasionally laugh at this movie for its scientific inaccuracies. There is no way a pickup truck with flat tires is going to outrun a pyroclastic flow, and taking shelter in a mine is probably not going to stop the hot ash and gases from getting in. (Not to mention a man with a compound fracture isn’t going to be walking around with a cast on his arm three days later without treatment.) The grandma-melting acid lake wouldn’t have become acidic that rapidly after the start of activity. Also, volcanoes don’t generally have dacitic Plinian eruptions while erupting a basaltic lava flow at their feet. Finally, a volcano that shows no signs of swelling or displacement isn’t going to suddenly collapse like Mount Saint Helens. It took that mountain two months of stewing and swelling to lead to the event.


I don’t hate Dante’s Peak. I find it amusing, even if it does have a stupid and unrealistic love story and many scientific inaccuracies. Even if its digital effects are shit. Even if I am still expecting a good volcano movie and there doesn’t seem to be one in existence.


No, you have things like Super Volcano instead. In this case, I do hate the movie, and I have good reason to despise it. This made for TV film was billed as made by the USGS to warn people about the dangers of Yellowstone. Instead, it was made by some independent film company looking to make a profit.


Unfortunately, the damage they did with the marketing of this film is still seen today. People still believe this work of fiction is scientifically accurate, and they base a lot of unfounded fear on it. Every time Yellowstone so much as twitches, people are accusing the USGS of “hiding the truth” for some weird, twisted reason that makes no sense. I’ve also know people who are so afraid of Yellowstone that they get violently angry when you talk about it. All because of this movie.


This movie is why there is a general panic whenever the bison within Yellowstone National Park migrate for the year, which is a normal activity. It’s why every earthquake swarm, another normal activity at the caldera, leads to general concern. It’s why the USGS is mistrusted and attacked on a regular basis by Yellowstone explosion believers. I hate that film and I refuse to support it!


The stupid thing about Yellowstone is that it’s not likely to erupt within our lifetimes, at least not in the way the movies depict. The most recent activity at the volcano has been random steam explosions around Yellowstone Lake. These are more likely related to hydrothermal activity than magmatic. Of the magmatic type eruptions, Yellowstone is more likely to have a basaltic lava flow than a large rhyolitic explosion.


There is a large magma chamber under the volcano, as there is under most large calderas. It spreads out quite a distance and can look rather intimidating in illustrations. However, the thing is mostly solid. Last I heard there was something like fifteen percent melt estimated in the whole massive thing. This is far from enough needed for a huge, caldera-forming eruption to occur. Long Valley has more melt than that, and it’s still not set up for an eruption. The magma chamber at Yellowstone caldera has been slowly solidifying over time, not melting and heating up.


Another thing to mention about the eruptions of Yellowstone is that there is clear scientific evidence that those events were not one massive explosion. An event like Huckleberry Ridge, the first and biggest of the Yellowstone eruptions, may have been made up of as many as seven explosions, with years or even decades between eruptions. It didn’t all go at once.


People talk about the bottleneck theory associated with the Toba eruption 74,000 years ago. However, the study that it came from has been disproven. The genetic signatures seen in the supposed population bottleneck were for one isolated human population in Asia, which would have shown the same signature just by being isolated in the first place.


To disprove it even more, there has been another VEI 8 eruption since Toba exploded and no such bottleneck was observed. There should have been one 26,000 years ago when Taupo exploded in New Zealand, but no such population drop was observed. In fact, there is no sign of environmental devastation associated with either eruption. Such things would have shown up in palaeoecological proxy data, but we don’t have those signs.


Yes, volcanoes are known to cause temporary environmental upsets. Take the Mazama eruption of some 8,000 years ago. There is plenty of proxy data showing an increase in wildfires shortly after the eruption, which are likely linked to massive tree die-offs in the region associated with environmental disturbance. But these were temporary, only lasting a few years. This was a VEI 7 eruption, though just barely.


It also depends on what else is going on upon the planet when the eruption occurs. Mazama’s eruption occurred during a hectic climatic period in the early Holocene. Tambora, another VEI 7 eruption that happened in 1815, occurred in the middle of the Little Ice Age. This led to something known as “the year without a summer” that led to several crop die-offs across the Northern Hemisphere. Again, though, it only lasted a year or so.


The eruptions of El Chichon and Pinatubo, a VEI 5 and 6, respectively, occurred during strong La Ninas, which led to heavy snowfall in southwestern North America and a temporary drop in global temperatures of a few degrees. However, the Mount Saint Helens eruption, another VEI 5 that occurred just two years before El Chichon, had no impact on the climate because it occurred in a normal year.


Even the situation of the eruption can change things. Take El Chichon, for instance. This 1982 eruption was a similar size to Mount Saint Helens, but it had a significantly larger plume of sulfur dioxide. Basically, this gas acts as a sun blocker and creates colder temperatures. If a Yellowstone-sized eruption were to occur without a significant contribution of sulfur dioxide, it could have little effect on the climate.


And it’s not just ash eruptions that can be a problem, either. People are going batshit crazy over the possibility of a massive VEI 8, but none are even discussing the possibility of a flood basalt event. Studies by paleoecologists and volcanologists have found that these eruptions released massive amounts of fluorine and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, leading to global warming and creating probable climatic crises. One is even linked to a mass extinction event. These are not likely to occur today, but smaller versions have been observed.


Take the Laki eruption in the 1700s. This large basaltic eruption along the edge of the Grimsvotn volcano in Iceland created a blue haze containing large amounts of fluorine. This caused the death of cattle and crops in Iceland, leading to something known as “the haze famine.” It also is sometimes associated with an unusually hot and deadly summer in Europe, and a famine as far away as Japan.


As you can see, predicting the effects of large volcanic eruptions is not an exact science. You have to take a lot of factors into consideration. This includes the size and nature of the eruption, the amount and type of gases released, the climatic situation on the planet at the time, and even the location of the volcano itself. A volcano erupting near the Equator is more likely to cause trouble for the world than a volcano erupting near the Arctic Circle, for example.


If you want to be afraid of a volcano, look for one of those that can kill you without even erupting, like Mount Rainier. I said in a previous post that this volcano is highly unstable and could collapse and create a massive mudflow without ever erupting. In fact, it’s done it in the past with impressive results. Evidence suggests that the Electron Mudflow (Google this one for yourself) formed without an accompanying eruption and led to a large, dangerous event.


There are several volcanoes like this around the world. Mount Meager in Canada is concerning because it is decaying from a combination of heavy volcanic gases and thick glacier cover. Mount Baker’s most recent events have also been self-destructive collapses and resulting lahars.


Collapses at volcanoes are a major problem, and they can prove deadly. Take the Papandayan volcano in Indonesia, whose hydrothermal system led to a deadly collapse that killed over a thousand people. At Unzen in Japan, a massive collapse in 1792 created a huge tsunami and killed over 14,000 people. A collapse at Krakatau in December, 2018, drowned several hundred people.


This doesn’t even cover the death tolls from pyroclastic flows and lahars. I discussed Armero a few articles ago, which led to a body count of over 23,000 people. In 1902, a single pyroclastic flow swept down the side of Mont Pelee on Martinique, devastated the city of Saint Pierre, and incinerated 28,000 victims. Tambora and Krakatau have wracked up even higher death tolls.


These are nothing compared to the death tolls associated with earthquakes and flood events. A single earthquake in China killed 800,000 people. An Indian Ocean cyclone killed up to 500,000 people in Bangladesh in 1970, mostly from flooding and storm surge. Volcanoes have killed thousands. Floods and earthquakes have killed millions. If you must worry about a disaster, worry about them.


Will we see a Yellowstone-sized eruption in our lifetimes? Probably not. Do such eruptions actually exist? Recent evidence suggests that they might not, but more work needs to be done before we can say this conclusively.


Until then, and if the day ever comes at all, I wish there was a volcano movie that wasn’t a piece of silly disaster movie crap. Someone should make a realistic movie about some of our great eruptions. Even movies about real eruptions have sucked. There have been several corny films about the eruption that destroyed Pompeii, and someone made a really bad movie about Mount Saint Helens. (It was bad enough to lead to a lawsuit. Look it up!)


I want to see a realistic movie about the destruction of Saint Pierre. I’d love to see one about Armero, though it would probably lead to several nightmares. I want to see historical epics about volcanic eruptions, not Krakatoa East of Java or Pompeii. Though I enjoy these movies for the laugh value, it’s about time we took volcanoes a little more seriously. Don’t you think?

2 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page