Geography At The Movies

Does Hollywood Get Natural Disasters Right? ~Earthquakes

Volcano~ The Movie

Disaster movies are a popular genre of film, and the movie 'Volcano' is no exception, having been a massive hit, and making more than $14,000,000 (USD), within the first weekend. This movie depicts a giant earthquake rocking the city of Los Angeles, unleashing the lava flowing underfoot through a volcano forming in the sewers.

This article will explore the realism of the scenes shown in the film, through comparing this movie to real life scenarios as well as studying how volcanoes work and seeing how accurate this movie actually is.


Volcanoes usually occur the edges of tectonic plates in areas such as the edges of the Pacific Ocean, the West Coast of the Americas, the East Coast of Siberia, Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Iceland, the Kenya Rift Valley, Italy, Hawaii as well as a chain of islands from New Guinea to New Zealand also known as the 'Ring of Fire' (as you can see from the diagram below).
In the film, the hazard was first shown as an earthquake occurring in Los Angeles that soon triggers a volcano that had been forming within the sewers. This is a typical location for earthquakes as there are many fault lines that can be found in and around Los Angeles. However, unlike the film, it is highly unlikely for a volcano to have even found in that area, much less forming underground for 10,000- 500,000 years gone unnoticed.

How This Hazard Works In Reality

In reality, volcanoes are triggered when pressure in the magma chamber forces magma up the main vent and towards the crater of the volcano (as well as secondary vent at the side of the volcano). Scientists have debated whether earthquakes can really trigger volcanic eruptions as there have been records of volcanic eruptions occurring right after an earthquake (for example, the eruption of Cordon Caulle a mere 2 days after the 9.6 earthquake in 1960) however, there still hasn't been any solid evidence or proof leading us to believe so.
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Case Study

A real life example of a volcanic eruption is the eruption that occurred on the 17th of January in the Democratic Republic of Congo from the active volcano, Nyiragongo.
Due to the unrest in the country at the time, it was very difficult for people to monitor the volcano and put emergency responses in place and in no time at all, the lava lake that was inside the volcano's crater had already began to drain through the 3 fissures that had opened up at the south side of the volcano causing an eruption. The lava reached to speeds of 60km/h, leaving little to no warning as the lava flooded the city of Goma.
This eruption destroyed up to 30% of the city and left many people homeless and jobless with over 350,000 people dependant on aid even a month after the eruption.

How This Film Clip Differ From Reality

There were so many issues with this movie, there isn't really much to say about the accuracy of the movie at all.
For one, volcanoes can only occur along subduction zones (areas in which one tectonic plate slips under another, sinking into the mantle allowing the plates to combine), therefore, the possibility of a volcano forming in the middle of LA is very small, besides, the average rate of conversion is a mere 2 to 8 cm per year meaning that it is highly unlikely for a volcano to be forming underground completely unnoticed.

Second of all, the K rails they used wouldn't have done much to block the lava; and the water that was doused on top of the lava would have done little to help, much less stop it completely as the movie had suggested. Besides, people would normally be too busy fleeing rather than staying behind attempting to stop the lava flow as it is highly unlikely that they'll succeed.

However, the biggest issue with the movie by far is people's reaction towards the lava. With none of them wearing masks, they all should've died of bleeding lungs ages ago or at least be preoccupied with coughing, gasping and choking, rather than walking straight up to the lava and inhaling all that gas as well as still being able to take action in diverging the lava flow.
I'd say that the only little bit of accuracy that this movie demonstrates it the way that they handled the situation at the VERY end where they decided to diverge the lava rather than 'diffuse' it, other than that, the majority of the facts provided in the movie is either a complete lie or pretty much impossible.

If I were to rate this movie in terms of accuracy out of 10 (10 being 100% accurate), I'd probably rate this movie a 4.


In conclusion, the clips shown in the film are unrealistic.
This hazard is unrealistic because of some of the ways people came as to keeping people safe as well as how they presented the dangerousness of this substance, not to mention, the location and the logic itself in the film was also pretty much impossible (a volcano forming and erupting in the middle of Los Angeles without warning?).
Compared to the volcano shown in another famous disaster film, 'Dante's Peak', this film is more realistic in comparison to 'Volcano' as the depiction of the severity of it's effects and the depiction of their methods of predicting the eruption.
Hollywood choses to exaggerate natural disasters as it often makes for a better plot line and it helps the story come together.


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This is evidence of the triangulation I did to ensure that all the information I was putting into this 'magazine article' was accurate.

I used the method of Triangulation by going on multiple sources to check the accuracy and the validity of the information I was receiving. Triangulating means that you use at least three sources like it's namesake and it not only helps you validate and check the information you have, it also can be used to get multiple opinions or perspectives on a controversial topic. However, in this case, Triangulation is merely used as a way to make sure all the information you have is accurate.

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Extension Questions

1. Birds can sense impending volcanoes and fly away.

Although it has been rumoured the birds can sense and fly away from earthquakes (a earthquake that does appear in the beginning of the movie), there still isn't any solid evidence or reason as to why this happens, there is also no mention of birds being able to sense a volcanic eruption.

2. Are volcanoes and earthquakes linked to each other?
As I have aforementioned, there have been some records of volcanoes erupting days after a massive earthquake, however, this isn't consistent and there hasn't been any solid evidence or proof linking these two natural disasters together.

3. Are dogs more sensitive to tectonic activity than humans?
Dogs have been said to be able to predict both earthquakes and volcanic eruptions acting strangely right before the incident by doing things such as digging holes, burrowing, howling, whining, etc.

4. The lava is very slow and thick, what type of lava is this likely to be?

This is most likely to be 'A'a' lava.

5. Would it be possible to breath and talk so close to an eruption?
It would not be possible to breathe and talk close to an eruption as the gas would cause quite a bit of damage to your body and could lead to excessive coughing, choking, gasping, or even bleeding lungs