Discovery Channel Blows Its Top and Its Credibility

Discovery Channel Blows Its Top and Its Credibility
Network focused on devastating impact of true story of Yellowstone volcano that just hasnt happened yet

By Dan Gainor
April 11, 2005

     A new climate change fantasy erupted onto TV screens nationwide Sunday night. The TV show Supervolcano, a combined effort of the Discovery Channel and the BBC, delivered the latest environmental disaster theory a massive eruption in Yellowstone National Park. In the program, that eruption threw incredible amounts of ash and dirt into the atmosphere and caused a rapid drop in global temperatures of as much as 20 degrees.

     Had it appeared on the SciFi Channel, Supervolcano would have received little attention other than a few random reviews. Instead, it was broadcast on Discovery and was hyped even to the point of having trailers appear in movie theaters. According to the advertising, This is a true story. It just hasnt happened yet.

     The truth of the program was emphasized by the interviews that followed done by none other than NBCs Tom Brokaw. He had even appeared on the Today show on April 7 to promote Supervolcano and though he downplayed the risk of an actual eruption, he did remind viewers: but if Yellowstone were to go, they think it would be 10,000 times as great as Mount St. Helens.

     Supervolcano ended with the U.S. completely covered in snow and ice. Immediately afterward, Brokaw began his follow-up piece with this: What visitors to Yellowstone cant see is the worlds largest volcano just beneath the surface of the park. Three times in Yellowstones history it has exploded on a scale hard to imagine for those of us living now.

     Brokaw did his best to super hype the interviews with devastating tales of previous volcanoes that are tiny compared to a supervolcano. He described one this way: The sun was blocked by so much dust that global temperatures dropped for several years. But that wasnt scary enough. Brokaw went on to paint the worst possible scenario as horrific as possible: Another super eruption today would equal the force of 1,000 Hiroshima bombs exploding over and over, blasting a hole in Yellowstone the size of Rhode Island.

     Discovery also tapped two government experts on Yellowstone and volcanoes to join the its Web site for a chat following the evenings event. Although Volcalogist Jake Lowenstern, the scientist in charge of Yellowstone Volcano Observatory, did lend credibility to the event by his appearance, he quickly undermined the networks claims of truth. The scenario is realistic insofar as it depicts an event similar to one that did occur 2.1 million years ago at Yellowstone, he explained during the live chat.

     The U.S. Geological Surveys own Web page explained that three such super eruptions have occurred during history, but the most recent was 640,000 years ago. According to the site: no eruptions of lava or volcanic ash have occurred for many thousands of years. The site does mention that future eruptions are likely, but not in the next few hundred years. It is doubtful any Discovery Channel marketing staff will be around to discuss their claims of truth at that time.

     While Lowenstern was able to handle volcano questions during the chat, he was unable to answer the most basic and obvious question: Does the U.S. have contingency plans for Cat 8 eruption? (That was the size of the eruption in the movie.) There was no discussion of why prominent government experts were lending their names and credibility to a science fiction docudrama.

     The Discovery Channel proclaims it has been described as one of television's most valued and trusted networks. That didnt stop it from trying to pre-hype its extravaganza, going to far as to do an online survey conducted by Harris Interactive. According to those results, 64 percent of adults who responded were unaware that Yellowstone contained a supervolcano that is able to produce an exceedingly large, catastrophic explosive eruption, in some cases over 100 times bigger than anything experienced by humanity over historic time.

     The overall program itself bore little resemblance to a documentary. It was typical disaster fare and contained many elements familiar to fans of such movies:

    The stars were constantly at the center of all activity. When the earthquakes struck, they were there. Star Michael Riley had the kind of luck that makes insurance firms cringe. Not only was he nearly killed in a plane crash (the result of the ash clogging engines), he also was trapped in an abandoned military bunker, left to starve or choke on the same ash. The U.S. government was portrayed alternately as evil/corrupt or just incompetent and unable to figure out to handle the disaster. Since the BBC was involved, there was a heavy British slant, with numerous British actors somehow populating the U.S. Geological Survey team. Oh, and of course, as Americans fled the new menace of nature south, the Mexicans closed the border, just as it happened in the movie The Day After Tomorrow. (No movie ever mentions how the Mexicans accomplish this feat, since America is unable to manage the same on the other side of the border.)

     Supervolcano was indeed the stuff of nightmares at least for people who dont like news organizations involved in blurring the lines between science and fiction.

     The Discovery Channel will air Supervolcano again on April 16 at both 8 p.m. and 11 p.m.