This photo taken November 13, 2023 shows vehicles leaving the town of Grindavik, southwestern Iceland during evacuation following earthquakes ( AFP / Kjartan TORBJOERNSSON)

Volcano misinformation erupts amid worldwide activity

Scientists say worldwide volcanic activity in November 2023 is nothing out of the ordinary, contrary to social media posts pointing to a recent spate of eruptions as abnormal. Experts told AFP that despite notable unrest in several countries, the year has been on the low end of what is considered typical.

"Volcanoes erupt simultaneously in Italy, Iceland, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Philippines, etc. Below is a volcanic activity map of 2013 vs 2023. Totally normal, right?" said internet commentator Kim Dotcom in a November 14, 2023 post on X, formerly known as Twitter.

The post attracted thousands of interactions before it was removed. Similar claims spread elsewhere on X.

Screenshot of an X post taken November 14, 2023

Notable volcanic activity was reported in Italy, Iceland, Japan, Mexico and Russia in November (archived here, here, here, here and here).

But experts told AFP that 2023 has so far had a normal number of eruptions (archived here and here).

"There is natural variation in volcanic activity from year to year but there has not been an overall increase in volcanic activity," Wendy Bohon, an earthquake geologist, said November 15.

Volcanoes are a recurring topic of climate misinformation. AFP has previously debunked the false claim that volcanoes emit more carbon dioxide than human activity.

Different types of activity

The maps in the X posts do not provide any context about the timeframe or type of activity they are comparing. That matters because not all volcanic activity has the same scale or impact.

The original post also did not include a source for the data or say if the map included other events, such as earthquakes triggered by volcanoes.

A keyword search suggests the origin could be a website called Volcano Discovery, which claims to aggregate several databases and displays interactive maps with icons similar to those in the images shared on social media.

The circles represent earthquakes and the triangles represent volcanic activity, according to the legend.

Screenshot of Volcano Discovery's website taken November 21, 2023

An overview of volcanic activity alone in November 2023 shows more sparse results than what the posts suggest. The map also includes several yellow triangles, which represent volcanoes' unrest -- a phenomenon that can last for months or years (archived here).

Average numbers

Several experts pointed AFP to the Smithsonian Global Volcanism Program (GVP) for yearly data on volcanic activity.

"Recent activity has not been higher than normal," Edward Venzke, a senior data researcher at the Smithsonian, said November 15.

A graphic shows year by year variations of registered volcanic eruptions worldwide ( Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History Global Volcanism Program (GVP) / Corin FAIFE)

The best available data from the institute (archived here)show there had been 67 eruptions in 2023 as of October 11, including 17 new ones and 21 that had ended.

The same point in 2013 had higher numbers, with "80 total, 37 new and 42 ended," Venzke said.

"There are usually in the range of 70-80 eruptions over a calendar year, so it really looks like 2023 will be on the low end of normal," he said, noting that additional activity is still possible before the end of the year.

Venzke added that historical averages do not take into account technological progress and better reporting.

The GVP says on its website that the uptick in activity observed since the 1990s (archived here) can be attributed to "new reporting effects," including internet access and increased use of remote-sensing satellite data.

Country comparisons

Mexico's Popocatepetl -- whose activity slightly increased in mid-November -- has seen various periods of action following a decades-long slumber (archived here and here).

"Since its awakening in December 1994, Popocatepetl has been presenting a wide range of eruptive activities, from small emissions of gases and ash to Strombolian and Vulcanian eruptions," Alejandra Arciniega Ceballos, a volcanologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, previously told AFP.

Ash and smoke billow from the Popocatepetl volcano as seen from the Huejotzingo community, State of Puebla, Mexico, on October 18, 2023 ( AFP / ALFREDO ESTRELLA)

Similarly, Mount Mayon in the Philippines has been erupting for months.

But in the Reykjanes peninsula in Iceland, three eruptions have struck since 2021 after decades of inactivity in a region home to 33 active volcano systems -- the highest number in Europe. Volcanologists say the recent major activity could hint at the start of a new era.

However, volcanologist and research scientist Stephen Self noted not all eruptions are created equal.

"Just remember that the next eruption from a super-volcano is most likely going to be small, as volcanoes of all types have far more small eruptions than they do big ones," he told AFP on November 15.

More of AFP's reporting on misinformation about climate change is available here.

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