Sensational Journalism: Blowing up the New England Supervolcano Story

August 8, 2018

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Look out, New Englanders! Did you know there’s a rising, bubbling supervolcano right below the surface of New Hampshire? Better get to living free, before you die!

At least that’s the conclusion you might draw from the headline of a June 26 story (Fox News 2018), “A new supervolcano is brewing under Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire” on the front page of the Fox News website.

Actually, not only did it get the science wrong, it led off with Massachusetts, even though only a bit of what’s called the “North Appalachian Anomaly” that clips the state’s western edge. (Draw your own conclusions as to why Fox News editors might think their readers would enjoy the thought of east coast elites being blown sky-high.)

Like any good scientist, Vadim Levin, the lead author of the paper referenced (which was actually published more than six months ago), has his own hypothesis as to why his half-year old research is erupting now.

“They didn’t have enough material,” he says, “and they decided to reach into a stock of existing, written blocks.”

Don’t get him wrong: Levin is happy to have the opportunity to engage with the public about his work and the government program that made it possible, and the reporting wasn’t all bad.

“The headline on the Fox thing is absolutely misleading,” he says. “The rest of it is perfectly fine.” The story’s spread like lava since then, with some outlets justly dropping the “supervolcano” part.

The Geology study (Levin et al., 2017) Levin led, with other researchers from Rutgers University and some from Yale, focused on a hot pocket of rock (Menke et al.) about 400 km in diameter, almost 200 km beneath the surface.

That depth differentiates the North Appalachian Anomaly—something that’s been known of since around 1995—from the actual supervolcano in Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park, which has a magma reservoir maybe only 20 km below the surface, as well as hot springs (and all the other things you’d expect from a geological hotspot).

Whatever’s beneath New England is different for other reasons; as far as anyone can tell, there is no magma involved. It can’t be a mantle hotspot then, the kind of thing that birthed the Yellowstone caldera and continues to flood Hawaii with molten rock. Levin says the North Appalachian Anomaly doesn’t have a “tendril” reaching down into the mantle either.

“Continents are old objects,” with colder central cores—that’s the “established” science, according to Levin. You expect exciting (to geologists) and scary (to layfolk) things to happen where tectonic plates meet and slide against each or dive beneath one another, as on the western edge of the North American plate.

The northeast of the United States is a passive margin environment, though, with the next nearest major activity taking place in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. So finding a warm blob deep below New England is unexpected, even if it isn’t particularly dangerous.

“It challenges the textbook concepts taught in introductory geology classes,” Levin said in an original Rutgers press release (Rutgers Today 2017).

Northwestern University geophysicist Seth A. Stein, who helped organize the Earthscope project that made Levin’s study possible, says the Anomaly does make sense in the context of an old idea which postulates a change of thickness of lithosphere (i.e., the crust and upper mantle) can cause these kinds of localized temperature differences. Stein acknowledges Levin has worked on this particular anomaly almost since it was first discovered, suggesting the new study is “clarifying the picture of something that’s been coming into focus.”

“The paper itself is perfectly clear,” Stein says, “and perfectly sensibly written.”

Earthscope is a massive project funded by the National Science Foundation, proposed in the year 2000 as the most extensive analysis of a continent’s subsurface. Also including GPS sensors and a plan to drill into the San Andreas fault, the part of Earthscope utilized by Levin et al. is what’s called the Transportable Array.

The Array—sometimes called “Bigfoot”—is a grid of 400 seismometers spaced about 70 km apart that’s been rolling over the entire United States. It spends about two years collecting seismic data in one place before being picked up and shifted. This data, which is public and can be accessed by anyone, helps scientists better image subsurface structures and faults, since we know how fast seismic waves travel through different materials. By the time of this writing, the array has covered all of the contiguous United States and is now set up in Alaska.

“This [study] is a perfect example of the kinds of things Earthschope is supposed to do,” Stein says. “It’s a very good example of doing modern science.”

Stein agrees that much of the reporting, though, could have been more careful to not conflate the North Appalachian Anomaly with something that could endanger human life in the near future.

“It was pretty silly,” he says.

“I would appreciate the headlines being slightly more aligned with what the actual science is,” Levin says, but he’s glad information gets out there at all, because it shows the importance of government funding for basic science, and the public clearly responds to it.

“My mailbox is bursting a little bit,” Levin said.

Of course with all that seismic data being publically available, it’s only a matter of time until Levin or someone else finally proves that the Earth is flat.

“As a good scientist, I would hedge my bets,” Levin says, “and ask, ‘On what scale?’”

References

Earthscope.org

Fox News. 2018. “A new supervolcano is brewing under Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire.” http://www.foxnews.com/science/2018/06/25/new-supervolcano-is-brewing-under-massachusetts-vermont-and-new-hampshire.html.

Levin, Vadim, Maureen D. Long, Peter Skryzalin, Yiran Li, and Ivette López. 2018. “Seismic evidence for a recently formed mantle upwelling beneath New England.” Geology 46, no. 1: 87–90.

Menke, William, Peter Skryzalin, Vadim Levin, Thomas Harper, Fiona Darbyshire, and Ted Dong. 2016. “The Northern Appalachian Anomaly: A modern asthenospheric upwelling.” Geophysical Research Letters 43, no. 19:  10,173–10,179.

Rutgers Today. 2017. “Mass of warm rock rising beneath New England, Rutgers study suggests.” https://news.rutgers.edu/research-news/mass-warm-rock-rising-beneath-new-england-rutgers-study-suggests/20171121#.WzmfcrgnbIW.