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Don’t Believe Everything You See on YouTube: Parícutin Edition

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I’d like to conduct an experiment someday. I’d like to gather together a group of experts in a particular field and show them a few popular science video clips relevant to their areas of expertise. Would they groan, howl and laugh as much as I did during these three short clips?

The sad fact is, even august purveyors of information can get things hysterically wrong. And I use the word “hysterically” advisedly – I mean they seem to be pining for disaster. They’re like the poor Angahuan tourist guide who, gazing upon the serene, extinct edifice of Parícutin, said wistfully, “It would be nice if the volcano would erupt again – just a little bit.”

I feel you, amigo. I’ve said the same thing gazing into Mount St. Helens’s caldera.

Britannica and Discovery seem to have the same yearning. Watch these two clips, and you’ll see. You should watch them because they are of a cinder cone being born, and they are awesome, despite the bit o’ wrong.

“Now it is dormant. Its activity seems to have come to an end. But we know that some volcanoes have remained inactive for hundreds, even thousands, of years, and then, unexpectedly, erupted again.”

Yeah, you just go on telling yourself that if it makes you feel better, buddy.

This next video comes with a trigger warning for those who become upset at egregious mispronunciation of Spanish words.

“It has not erupted since, but it’s not dead, either. At any moment, Parícutin could erupt again.”

Translation: “Doo-doo-DOOM. You’re all gonna diiiiieeeee!!!!!!!!!!! Ah-hahahahaha! It could happen any second! Mwa-ha-ha!”

These two videos combined inspired me to write a geopoem in the style of Buffalo Bill’s by ee cummings.

Paricutin's by Dana Hunter. Thank you, ee cummings.

Paricutin's by Dana Hunter. A screenshot with the proper formatting, which WordPress hates and will not reproduce without more pleading and cajoling than I wish to engage in. Thank you, ee cummings.

which used to
erupt rubblyrough-black
and shoot onetwothreefourfive bombsjustlikethat
it was a feisty one
and what i want to know is
how do you like your brandnew cinder cone
Señor Pulido

The key term here is “defunct.” Parícutin is defunct. It is definitely deceased. It is an ex-active volcano. It’s a monogenetic volcano – it shot its charge and is now resting in peace. So all of those announcers warning of possible future mayhem in dolorous tones – they’re wrong. I hope the poem helps them remember this fact.

But I have good news for them – the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt Parícutin is located in is definitely not defunct. We may not see it in our lifetimes, but a new cinder cone could pop up there at any moment. And it has plenty of volcanoes that go boom. There are several just around Mexico City alone, plus there’s the possibility that a cinder cone could rise up in a Mexico City suburb somewhere, bursting through someone’s living room floor in a fissure of fire, spewing molten rock all over the sofa and teevee, making life quite exciting for the residents and causing the neighborhood to undergo a rather drastic rezoning from residential to volcano. Is that not enough potential mayhem, pop sci program writers? Must you invent entirely fictitious possible future eruptions of Parícutin in order to frighten viewers into watching?

Sadly, I suspect the answer is yes. We’ll probably never convince them otherwise – fear sells, and well they know it. This is why I try to keep a large block of salt handy when watching science programming on the teevee – or, in this case, on YouTube. But those errors, while egregious to those of us who know what a cinder cone actually does, were but minor quibbles compared to the howler in this next video. Seriously, I laughed so hard in the dead of night I thought my neighbor may come up to see what was wrong with me. Watch this, and see if you can spot what had tears of mirth streaming from my eyes.

Have you got it? If so, have you recovered yet? You were probably lulled by the fact it started out so beautifully factual – I’d been sort of serenely enjoying the animations, nodding my head along to the story, thinking, “Oh, yes, tremors must be very common along that belt,” and then bam. It’s like the narrator’s fact finder made a wrong turn at Albuquerque. And this happens:

“What had once been a peaceful cornfield was now a major volcano 3188 meters high. Parícutin is the seventh largest volcano in the world.”

This will come as a nasty shock to volcanoes like Parinacota, which by elevation above sea level, is the 7th tallest according to the Global Volcanism Project. The number quoted is Parícutin’s elevation above sea level, and the narrator fails even by that measure. 6348m is greater than 3188m by, like, a lot.

Parícutin is awesome because it was a volcano we got to watch grow up from crack-in-the-ground to strapping young cinder cone, but it’s not even the highest volcanic summit on its own continent – Pico de Orizaba is. Our poor Parí is dwarfed by literally every stratovolcano in the country. It’s only 424 meters (1391 feet) tall. Like all cinder cones, it’s short, and not terribly explosive. It only reached a VEI of 4 – respectable, yeah, but ten times smaller than the May 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, and it took nine years to achieve a tiny fraction of what St. Helens did in an afternoon. It’s not the seventh largest volcanic anything that I’m able to determine – although I’d argue it’s in the top ten in coolness. I mean, it suddenly appeared in poor Señor Pulido’s field and grew into a robust young volcano within a week, watched by people start-to-finish, and caught on film in the 1940s – if that’s not cool, no volcano is cool, and we might as well just shut up shop right now and start talking about other geological things.

At the risk of making Rosetta Stones all volcanoes all the time, I’ll write up the true story of Parícutin someday fairly soon – and I hope that I can prove that a volcano doesn’t have to be among the biggest or most dangerous or liable to awaken at any time in order for its eruption to be one of the coolest geological events in history.

This spectacular nighttime time-exposure of México's Parícutin volcano in 1948 shows strombolian ejection of incandescent blocks and their trails as they roll down the slopes of the cone. Parícutin is renowned as the volcano that was born in a cornfield in 1943. It grew to a height of more than 150 m within the first week of its appearance, and remained active until 1952.  Photo by Carl Fries, 1948 (U.S. Geological Survey). Image and caption courtesy the Global Volcanism Program.

This spectacular nighttime time-exposure of México's Parícutin volcano in 1948 shows strombolian ejection of incandescent blocks and their trails as they roll down the slopes of the cone. Parícutin is renowned as the volcano that was born in a cornfield in 1943. It grew to a height of more than 150 m within the first week of its appearance, and remained active until 1952. Photo by Carl Fries, 1948 (U.S. Geological Survey). Image and caption courtesy the Global Volcanism Program. I enter it as Exhibit A for why Parícutin doesn't have to be potentially active or veryvery big in order to be cool.

I think we’ve also proved that respected names as well as unknown folk can be hilariously wrong about science. If you run across an error in any video clips you’re watching, send me a link – you never know what adventures error correction may launch us on.


Fries, C.F. et al (1993): Movie footage of the activity of Paricutin Volcano, Michoacan, Mexico, 1945-1952. USGS Open-File Report 93-197-A.

Luhr, J.F. and Delgado-Granados, H. (1997): Aerial Examination of Volcanoes Along the Front of the Western Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt and a Visit to Parícutin. International Association of Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth’s Interior.

Dana Hunter About the Author: Dana Hunter is a science blogger, SF writer, and geology addict whose home away from SciAm is En Tequila Es Verdad. Follow her on Twitter: @dhunterauthor. Follow on Twitter @dhunterauthor.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. erik_eruptions 12:24 pm 12/27/2012

    Nice post … although St. Helens isn’t a caldera, but a crater, right? No implosion, just a highly impressive explosion.

    Link to this
  2. 2. khearn 2:41 pm 12/28/2012

    You’ve mentioned a few times in previous blogs that cinder cones never erupt again. This time you seem to think it’s just common knowledge, but I’ve never heard that before reading your blog. Now, you’re a Geologist and I’m not, so I figure you’re right and I’m just ignorant. :) But would you mind doing a blog on cinder cones and why they don’t ever erupt again? I looked at the cinder cone article at Wikipedia, and it even mentions that Cerro Negro has erupted over 20 times from 1850 to 1999. I suspect this may be as inaccurate as the YouTube videos, but I’d like to learn more from a better source. I’m guessing that you probably classify Cerro Negro as something other than just a cinder cone, or maybe it has erupted from different cones each time.

    Link to this
  3. 3. SusannahA 6:10 am 01/1/2013

    I was fortunate to watch, back in 1959 or maybe 1960, a film of the beginnings and growth of Paricutin. A longish film, slow-moving. I remember particularly Pulido’s field, leaking what looked like steam from several cracks. There was no sudden panic, like the final cartoon pretends; the smoke continued, found more small outlets well before ash started to appear. Obviously, this was not the first indication; it would have taken hours, if not a day at least, for word to get out, in those days of poor roads, travel by foot or burro, rare telephone contacts, etc. Even in the 60s, a small town would have maybe one phone. And for a reporter with a film to arrive would take more hours.

    My friend, an American railroader living in Mexico (fairly wealthy, with a private movie room in his house, where I watched the film) had accompanied the photographer to the site and watched the growth of the volcano from a safe distance. He had quite the stories to tell!

    (I can’t remember his name at the moment; it will come back to me. I may have a photo of me and his wife at my wedding. I’ll look for it.)

    Link to this
  4. 4. SusannahA 9:08 pm 01/1/2013

    I remembered the name, finally; I saw the movie in the home of Samuel Bolling Wright. There’s a brief article in Morelia International Film Fest. (

    “Samuel Bolling’s best achievement is Paricutín Volcano, which includes wonderful color material shot between 1943 and 1952, including unusual shots of Dionisio Pulido, the peasant who first saw the volcano grow out of his plot of land.”

    Link to this
  5. 5. jgrosay 8:13 am 01/2/2013

    Is it Parícutin or Paricutín? I’d vote for the second option, english does not use accents, but they are important in other languages.

    Link to this

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