No, the “Ring of Fire” is Not a Real Thing

By Erik Klemetti | January 26, 2018 8:49 am
The so-called "Ring of Fire". It doesn't mean much, geologically-speaking. Wikipedia.

The so-called “Ring of Fire”. It doesn’t mean much, geologically-speaking. Wikipedia.

The Ring of Fire is really active!” Yup, that’s what the headlines say. The supposed “Ring of Fire” — the chain of volcanoes and earthquakes that sits at the edge of the Pacific Ocean — appears to be in the news a lot right now because of the eruptions in the Philippines and Indonesia and earthquakes in Alaska and California. However, this is all normal for these parts of the world, so let’s not get all worked up about it.

Let’s start off with the basics: the “Ring of Fire” is not a thing, geologically-speaking. Maps of this supposed ring of doom show it skirting around the Pacific Ocean from southern Chile, up the coast of South America to the west coast of North America, up over Alaska and Kamchatka, swinging south to get Japan and the Philippines … then takes a weird jog to the west to include Indonesia because [reasons] and then finishing heading back east to hit the Kermadecs and finally New Zealand. The whole thing, though, is really just an evocative image for writers.

Sure, there are a lot of tectonic boundaries along the edge of the Pacific. It is a large ocean underlain by multiple oceanic plates that are interacting with lots of continental and other oceanic plates. However, what happens in Chile doesn’t really change what is happening in California, or Japan or New Zealand. Tectonics doesn’t really work that way, it’s too big a scale. So, that eruption at Mayon in the Philippines is not causing the eruption in Kusatsu in Japan or triggering earthquakes in Alaska. They are not directly connected (or even involve the same tectonic plates!)

What is true is there are a lot of volcanoes along the edge of the Pacific because of subduction, where oceanic plates dive under continental (or other oceanic) plates meeting their doom in the Earth’s mantle. That process generates magma, which forms volcanoes. In this case, lots of volcanoes. Lots of volcanoes, of which dozens are erupting or restless at any given moment … we just might not hear about them in the news because they’re in the middle of nowhere or the media is distracted by other things.

With subduction comes earthquakes too, so along the rim of the Pacific, literally hundreds of earthquakes happen each week. Dozens of these earthquakes can be big (larger than M5) and near populated areas like in Indonesia or Mexico. So, we should all expect earthquakes, not be surprised when a few happen close in time because of the clustering in a random distribution of events (and that’s what earthquakes are — randomly distributed).

So, what we are experiencing now in this flurry of news articles about the “Ring of Fire” being more active is not a geologic phenomenon, but rather a human one: One event attracts the attention, other events that might not have garnered much news coverage suddenly do because they are related in our minds and boom! the “Ring of Fire” is going crazy. Except it’s not. The tectonic processes going on are doing what they always do. Maybe we have a clustering of these events right now, maybe not (you’d have to look at the actual statistics … you know, data), but nothing on Earth has changed since last week when we weren’t all panicking about the “Ring of Fire”.

Anyway, the “Ring of Fire” is a term that I really dislike (if you didn’t figure that out) because it really does nothing to help people better understand why eruptions and earthquakes occur. There are a multitude of volcanoes across the globe not on the “Ring of Fire” and earthquakes happen everywhere on the planet. The “Ring of Fire” is just a lazy way to say you didn’t want to look up or understand the specific geologic setting of that country’s earthquakes or volcanoes, so instead, hey let’s throw in some boilerplate about the “Ring of Fire”! That’ll get the peeps.

Let’s appreciation the planet for what it is: a tectonically active place where things like eruptions and earthquakes happen. We don’t need to use inaccurate literary devices that merely make things sound worse.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Rocky Planet, Science, Science Blogs
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  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/EquivPrinFail.pdf Uncle Al

    Tectonic plates have shared borders mapping the surface, Humans concoct patterns, real or otherwise. The mid-Atlantic ridge is analogous but not aesthetic. Iceland being pulled part is ignored unless it impacts air travel.

    earthquake(.)usgs(.)gov/earthquakes/map/
    … Three mouse wheel clicks

    The entire Pacific will eject into space at 0227 hrs UTC Friday 13 November 3564 AD. Mankind must self-impose a massive global tax to prevent this from happening. Earth Death need not be inevitable.

  • OWilson

    “We don’t need to use inaccurate literary devices that merely make things sound worse”

    Wow!

    Thanks for that, this is a rare occasion indeed, when a Discover Blog article has not exaggerated or overblown a natural global phenomena.

    Just good information that informs folks, doesn’t blame Republicans, then let’s them go on their way with having to seek street corner group hugs.

    Almost like the old days, when news was news!

    Thanks again!

  • Kathy Calm

    And the Ocean is just random water molecules….go home Lego Dreamers!

  • mjkbk

    I wonder who first coined (and when) the phrase, “Ring of Fire”……a scientist? A journo? Possibly a novelist? 😉

    I did a cursory online search but could find nothing about its origin. Anyone?

    • OWilson

      Johnny Cash, of course!

    • Andrea Falchek

      Johnny Cash.

    • Emily Sponder

      the ring of fire first got its name in 1841. by scienctists

  • Jim Fosnaught

    how does ring of fire. describing the volcanic region of the planet make things seem worse.. unless you are a lone bitter reporter working for Discover Magazine that in the past year published a story calling it the ring of fire.. but this reporter was left out??? bitter grapes???

  • Michael Ross

    You hit one of my pet nails on the head with “a weird jog to the west to include Indonesia because [reasons]” – none of the plates involved in Indonesian volcanism are parts of the Pacific so any [reasons] are entirely specious. It’s an entirely artificial add-on to an entirely flawed concept.

  • Mary Schade

    It has been calked Ring of Fire since before this blogger was born..I vote Johnny Cash also..early 60s about the time of the Alaska Quake. By the way, try telling that to Chile or Alaska or Cali..

    • Rick20112

      Thanks, Mary. I re-found Johnny Cash and enjoyed the song … again.

    • Michael Cleveland

      If you wanna be a journalist, but don’t want to do the classroom time, become a blogger. No credentials required.

  • Kev Avery

    What about slowing of the Earth’s rotation in 2018. Many scientist are saying that there will be a periodic upsurge in Earthquakes and eruptions in mainly equatorial regions. See link

    https://amp.theguardian.com/world/2017/nov/18/2018-set-to-be-year-of-big-earthquakes

  • Michael Cleveland

    Oh, please. You would make a great propagandist. You have gift for twisting meanings to suit your message. The Ring of Fire refers only to that prevalence of volcanoes and faults that lie around the Pacific Ocean. No one is saying that one eruption or earthquake is related to or causative of any other. It’s called the Ring of Fire because there is a relative concentration of volcanic activity in the designated zone (things we don’t have in our little ol’ Midwest). To redefine a thing so you can argue against it smacks more of evil intent than ignorance.

  • 7eggert

    You dislike it because you think that people would think that a ring of fire would be perfectly circular, closed and uniformly being pushed together, volcanoes erupting in unison?

    What I learn from “ring of fire” is: The pacific plate is surrounded by volcanoes because subduction. From there we add Indonesia and Middle-America: “It’s complicated” and Hawaii: hotspot. Antarctica: No movement? (I didn’t care yet.)

    About the relation between (volcano events* and) earthquakes: Off cause one quake will not shake loose the other end of the earth. But if one semi-rigid plate pushes along or below the other, and if it gets stuck at one place, there will be a quake. But it doesn’t get stuck on one place, it gets stuck at many places, all of them have quakes.

    Now let’s assume there is absolutely no relation between events: One end gets stuck, stays stuck, the other end will quake and quake and move and move … that’s impossible unless one plate deforms and/or creates a new rift. That’s why nobody seems to believe you when you say there is _no_ possible relation.

    OTOH, if you’d most likely be wrong if you tried to predict quakes by what happened before (e.g. three quakes in a row along a line – the fourth doesn’t happen as expected). Brains like to over-estimate relations.

    * not included in example

  • Rick20112

    I cannot agree. The “Ring of Fire” is certainly a real thing. It shows the relationship between the tectonic plates and the volcanoes and earthquakes that occur at their boundaries. It is a terrific teaching tool for geologists and geographers … and middle school science teachers.

    But, one must be careful. Indeed, events along the “Ring of Fire” are not related. A “sudden” spate of volcanic eruptions and/or earthquakes does not imply that the ring is more active. It offers a teaching opportunity, but a reasoned teaching opportunity.

    And, when I brought these items to the attention of a 7th grade class last week, I asked if they knew what the “Ring of Fire” was. Their most common response: “It’s a ring, and it’s on fire.” Maybe that was a Hunger Games reference. Or a plaintive whine for more and better science education.

  • no I in meme

    Perhaps the author would be more amenable to “Arc of increased incidence of explosive volcanism.”

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Rocky Planet

Rocky Planet covers all the geologic events that made and will continue to shape our planet. From volcanoes to earthquakes to gold to oceans to other solar systems, I discuss what is intriguing and illuminating about the rocks beneath our feet and above our heads. Ever wonder what volcanoes are erupting? How tsunamis form and where? What rocks can tell us about ancient environments? How the Earth might change in the future? You'll find these answers and more on Rocky Planet.
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