Artistic License Geology

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.

You've Seen It a Million Times. A Disaster Movie features an earthquake, volcano or some other ground-based phenomena and does it in a relatively entertaining way. Then the Fridge Logic hits that Geology Does Not Work That Way!

Artistic License-Geology is the catch-all term for where a work shows an often well-studied disaster but gets it wrong. Either they Did Not Do the Research, They Just Didn't Care, or they simply got it wrong during production and it creates such a blow to the Suspension of Disbelief of anyone who might even have a passing knowledge of the subject matter.

For example, earthquakes rarely last more than 30 seconds and are usually produced along tectonic boundaries. Sometimes this is different and large quakes can happen in places where you normally don't expect them, such as in Earthquake In New York. Problem is, such quakes are RARE. As in once in many lifetimes rare. The massive New Madrid earthquakes in 1812 are unlikely to repeat themselves any time for the next 200 years. But this is not the point. The point in such movies is that while the premise of an earthquake somewhere you don't expect is plausible, the actual depiction of the event is usually not.

This can get incredibly Egregious at times. Cracks do not chase B actors or swallow entire cities whole without a trace. Ground shaking does not just move from left to right or just up and down. Likewise, lasting a very long time for dramatic purposes kills the science. Extremely long duration quakes are rare and when they do happen they tend to occur only on the largest ones. The Sumatra quake in 2004, which is the 3rd largest earthquake ever recorded, lasted 8–10 minutes. In contrast, the 1994 Northridge earthquake in Los Angeles lasted 20 seconds, and even the "Big One" cannot be expected to last much more than 40 seconds in a nightmarish worst case scenario.

But this is not the only time geology gets failing grades. Volcanoes are another example. Outrunning the Lava Flow in Real Life is as easy as picking up to a brisk walk. Rarely does it move any faster, but it frequently outruns sprinters in TV land. Inversely, you cannot Outrun the Pyroclastic Flow. Those travel near the speed of sound and will destroy anything in its path not strong enough to withstand a one-megaton nuclear weapon. Related to this are writers' tendencies to ignore the well-established conventions for volcanic activity such as the fact that precursory activity is known and alerted for sometimes a month or more in advance of an actual eruption-even the famous "Cornfield Volcano", Paricutín, which sprouted from its namesake cornfield in 1943 and grew 1,000 feet in under a year, occurred in a region where there are hundreds more cinder cones-so while the unlucky farmer was surprised, scientists were not. But in TV Land, volcanoes can pop out of the ground wherever they damn well please and surprise big budget actors playing scientists with the Idiot Ball. And we haven't even mentioned the heat given off by lava flows yet...

As a note, this trope also covers other abuses of the field of geology including getting rocks, minerals even whole processes down wrong.

Of course, some may not notice this and the MST3K Mantra provides an easy escape for having to think about it.

This is the supertrope of California Collapse. Compare Artistic License: Biology, Artistic License Physics. Contrast Shown Their Work. See also All-Natural Gem Polish.

Examples of Artistic License Geology include:

Anime and Manga

  • In Code Geass, when the F.L.E.I.J.A. bomb is deployed in Tokyo and later Pendragon, leaving at least a 1300 meter-deep crater, the now exposed terrain is completely uniform. No geological layers at all.
    • It can perhaps be Handwaved by simply stating that F.L.E.I.J.A. burns the ground inside the crater to uniform consistency.

Comic Books

  • Many old Marvel Comics stories had characters visiting Subterrania, a land located at "The center of the Earth," which is impossible since Earth's core is solid metal surrounded by molten metal. Nothing remotely alive is going to be down there. The place was later retconned as being a cave system not far from the surface.
  • The realm of Skartaris in DC Comics The Warlord is located in the center of a Hollow World Earth.
  • One dinosaur comic has paleontologists find "the most complete T. Rex skeleton ever", and carbon-date it to make sure it's genuine. Carbon dating is not used on objects older than 30,000 years.


  • Volcano explicitly does away with the precursory effects of said volcano despite the fact that Los Angeles is well-monitored for tectonic activity. Likewise, the lava flow going through the subway system moves incredibly fast compared to real lava tubes.
    • There are different types of lava. Some run fast as water. See below in the entry for Congo
    • That and in the movie its in a subtunnel... its not as much its speed as its the pressure. Anything can move INCREDIBLY fast under pressure, the pressure also makes it hotter which means its not a thick paste but may even be close to liquid.
  • Like Volcano, Dante's Peak has several moments where the science doesn't add up. (The USGS even disputed a number of parts) Examples here include fluid lava in what is clearly a large explosive eruption, and being able to Outrun the Pyroclastic Cloud.
    • In Volcano the lava looks basaltic, but all volcanoes on the West Coast are gas rich felsic/intermediate andesitic volcanoes. Not to mention that the Juan De Fuca Plate that is subducted under the West Coast to produce volcanism is too far north to produce volcanoes in LA. In other words NO VOLCANOES IN CALIFORNIA.
      • Lassen Peak (last erupted in 1917), Mount Shasta (last erupted in 1786) and Medicine Lake Volcano (last erupted in the 11th Century) are in California, but it does say a thing that the southernmost volcano on the West Coast is in northern California. Far northern California at that; closer to Oregon than San Francisco.
      • Southern California is littered with cinder cones and massive basalt flows (drive 14 east from Mojave and up 395 to see a spectacular example near Fossil Falls, or climb Amboy Crater just east of Barstow). Not to mention Long Valley Caldera, the Mono Craters, and Death Valley's Ubehebe.
        • The same holds true for most of the American southwest-but the area's vulcanism is long gone, at least until the next continental collision.
    • Hold your hand over the lava to make sure that it is in fact hot. Professor! Lava! Hot!
  • The volcano part of The Movie of Congo also has this. The lava flow cascading through the buried city of Zinj runs at seemingly tsunami speeds on-camera. To say nothing of other geological faults. (Diamonds in a basalt flow?)
    • It should be noted Virunga region of the Congo is just about the only place in the world where lava actually moves this fast. Flows from Mount Nyiragongo have been clocked at about 60 MPH.
  • Waterworld: If you melted all the ice on the planet you could cause a 60 m (180 ft) rise in sea level, which would suck for low-lying coastal areas, but is not nearly enough to create the ocean planet depicted. Also, it would take almost 6,000 years to do it at the current rate of global mean temperature increase. That's excluding reduction in warming rate due to CO2 saturation excluding negative feedbacks of the increased ocean area.
  • Armageddon's first scene is a depiction of the meteor/comet collision which is widely believed to have led to the extinction of the dinosaurs, approximately 65 million years ago. Apparently so that we'll know what planet we're looking at, the continents are depicted in their modern positions, as opposed to where they actually were (which was more like this).
  • Crack In The World movie from 1965.
    • An incredibly fast case of Science Marches On. They were in line with accepted theory at the time the film was made. By the time the film was released geology was undergoing a revolution, and the Plate Tectonics theory was gaining ascendancy, making much of the geology in the movie nonsensical.
  • In Outlander, the protagonists trek through lava-filled tunnels... in Norway. The Fennoscandian Shield which makes up Norway's land mass is one of the most tectonically stable areas in the world, and has had no volcanic activity for hundreds of millions of years.
  • Two Thousand Twelve is just silly. We'd explain further, but we'd be here all day.
  • In Gamera Vs Zigra, the main villain causes multiple earthquakes. The strongest earthquake in the film does a lot of damage, but most buildings are still left standing. This earthquake is said to have a magnitude of 18 on the Richter scale—More than 100,000,000 times more powerful than the strongest earthquake ever recorded.


  • Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth (and its many movie remakes and retellings) is a prime example of this.
    • For the original book this is more a case of Science Marches On given how little was known of the interior of the planet in 1864.
      • Verne was more concerned with following the Rule of Cool in this book, than the current scientific understanding of the interior of the Earth. His narrator in this story, Axel, is a geology student, and is continually Lampshading how utterly impossible what they are doing should be, with his explanations being consistent with 19th century geologic theories, and they still stand up pretty well.
    • The 2008 movie makes a plot point out of igniting Magnesium veins in the rock. Magnesium is harvested from Magnesium Chloride, which is only found in sea water. It takes approximately 142 gallons of seawater to make 1 pound of Magnesium.
      • Magnesium exists in rocks as well (the magnesium in the oceans is the result of those rocks weathering). Very magnesium-rich rocks tend to be rare on Earth's surface, as they have a high melting point. The Earth's mantle, however, is largely formed out of megnesium-rich perovskite. Pure magnesium, however, does not exist in nature. It is always found as magnesium compounds (in rocks usually bonded with silica).
  • There is a Hardy Boys novel wherein the boys experienced a powerful earthquake that lasted about a minute and threw them off their feet. We later find out that the quake measured "between 3 and 4 on the Richter scale." As any Californian could tell you, you might not even notice a tremor of that magnitude, especially if your attention was focused on something else at the time. And if you did notice it, your first reaction would not be "Yikes, earthquake!" but "That must be a pretty big truck."
  • Stephen Baxter's Flood and Ark are a series based off the laughable notion that a crack in the ocean floor would result in untold amounts of water "trapped below" gushing up and basically putting the planet straight into a Kevin Costner movie. Looking at the BP fiasco in the Gulf of Mexico, the only liquid deposits are petroleum and the water level didn't rise a bit—it just got gunkier.
    • Actually, the samples from the Kola Superdeep Borehole showed that the deep crust is downright saturated with water and even hydrogen gas, trapped by layers of impermeable rock above it. That there's enough of it to flood the planet with 50–60 km of water, or indeed have any way of escaping to the surface en masse is certainly less than likely, but there really is water down there, and lots of it. In a similar vein, it's estimated that the total biomass of lithotrophs (rock eating bacteria) living in porous rock in the crust exceeds by an order of magnitude the combined biomass of all surface and oceanic life.
      • Keep in mind that this is water trapped deep under continental crust, unlike in the novel (where the water is coming up from the mantle). In particular, the research that Baxter cites at the end refers to a mass of water-bearing rock, in which the actual water is a small percentage of the rock (although amusingly enough, the research paper author said he'd been getting letters and e-mails from people asking him if it was the water from Noah's Flood).
  • Very common in Cthulhu Mythos stories. While some elements such as islands rising from the sea floor might be justified under Rule of Cool and/or Science Marches On, other examples have no such excuse (e.g. Lin Carter saying that a creepy figurine doesn't look like jade, feels different than jade, and weighs more than jade ever could, yet continuing to call it jade).
  • In Wither, the first book of the Chemical Garden Trilogy by Lauren De Stefano, North America is the only land mass remaining because the government destroyed the other continents with some super weapon, so a only a few small, uninhabitable islands remain. The destruction of all the other continents has no ill effect on North America or the environment in general.
  • In the Iron Druid Chronicles the druid Atticus Sullivan made a deal with the Native god Coyote to 'move some earth'. He finds out that this involves him magically placing a gold vein in a specific location where Coyote wants a mine to be built. He protests that while he can do this, it would be geologically impossible for gold to be found in that location. It would be so unprecedented that geologists all over the world will question the basic principles of the science. Coyote does not care.

Live Action TV

  • The made-for-Sci-Fi-Channel movie Magma: Volcanic Disaster does this as well. Volcanoes without precursory activity? Check. Fast moving lava? Check. Lava in places not normally found (such as above the actors head's when inside a tunnel)? Check. Among other things.
  • Let's face it: if it's an original movie on Syfy, accuracy is the very least of their concerns.
  • In the miniseries 10.5, a volcano erupts without any hint of activity and a ground fissure OVERTAKES A TRAIN! To say nothing of the many many other scientific errors out there.
    • Immediately following the original airing of 10.5 the news program of the same network showed a bunch of real-life geologists watching 10.5 and laughing their heads off.
    • The most blatant error is that it is literally impossible for there to be an earthquake with a magnitude of 10.5.
  • Any documentary where a supervolcano explodes like the mother of all H-bombs. Supervolcanoes are defined by the amount of material produced, not by the violence of the event. It CAN happen, as it probably did with Toba, but is NOT required. In fact, the largest volcanoes release large amount of fluid lava in a gentle manner, but not less dangerously.

Tabletop Games

  • FATAL had a reference to a spell requiring "solid rock from the earth's core". Both parts of that statement are wrong.
  • Along the lines of the supervolcano discussion above, in Rifts one of the events during the Great Cataclysm that helped nearly wipe out humanity was the sudden eruption of Yellowstone. Granted, all this was happening because of a sudden, massive increase in Earth's magical energy levels, causing reality to take a vacation. The sudden explosion of a supervolcano was probably the least weird thing happening at the moment.

Video Games

  • The first Interactive Fiction game Colossal Cave has a volcano in a limestone cave system.
    • Depending on how the "volcano" is described, it could be possible. There's nothing preventing a volcanic intrusion from occurring in an area with caves, which might cause magma to enter the cave system. It would not create an actual volcano, though.
      • Another problem is that because of the presence of the hot magma, the limestone should have recrystallized as marble, or melted to become a calcic igneous rock.
    • This one does depend on the version, however. The very first version (which was far from finished) had fewer fantasy elements and was more a straight simulation of the real Bedquilt Cave in Kentucky, but later versions (including the first complete version, finished by Don Woods) included more fantasy and magic, including the volcano. The actual cave layout, being described by an experienced caver, is quite accurate to the real place.
  • The mines of the Harvest Moon games. Even discounting the one set in a semi-active volcano, you have mines where you can find gold, silver and copper, along with emeralds, rubies, and diamonds on the same level. Older games at least tried to pay lip service to reality by having the precious gems and metals in different mines.
  • Largely averted in Dwarf Fortress except for some minor issues with Convection, Schmonvection and some dwarves being tough enough to drown in the lava before being burned in it.
  • In World of Warcraft, one of the female draenei jokes is "This planet has a tremendous supply of sandstone. The inhabitants must be wealthy beyond their dreams." (a nod to the TV show ALF). Fridge Logic sets in fast, causing people to wonder what Argus and Draenor were like to have had so little sandstone. This would require these planets to have a fundamentally different kind of sedimentation process, despite that fact that the geology of Outland looks little different from that of Azeroth. Considering that studies of the geology of Mars have shown it to be more or less similar to that of Earth, there is no reason to assume that Argus would be any different from Azeroth.
  • Lots of games have "diamond" weapons or armor, assuming that since diamond is hard, it must be very durable. In fact, diamond crystals have perfect cleavage in four directions and are therefore quite brittle: scratching a diamond is hard, but breaking it is not.
    • An exception is Mass Effect 2, where the Normandy can be upgraded with armor composed of carbon nanotube sheets interwoven with diamond chemical vapor deposition, crushed into dense layers which compensate for diamond's brittleness.
  • In Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire, Team Magma's Well Intentioned Extremist goal is to increase the size of the landmasses in order to make them more habitable for Pokémon, and to that end, plan to make Mt. Chimney erupt. Ignoring the obvious problem here (a volcanic eruption would likely cause many of the Pokémon to perish) many fans have pointed out, this would far more likely have caused the opposite effect, causing much of the Houenn to sink into the sea and decrease the size of the land mass.

Real Life

  • The Jack Chick tract Big Daddy claims that the dating of sedimentary rock layers and fossils is circular, ignoring the use of radiometric dating and other physical and chemical methods used to determine the age of samples. The Straw Atheist even mentions carbon-14 dating, so it's not that Chick was totally unaware of radiometric dating; he Just Didn't Care.
    • You can only use carbon-14 dating on organic matter, not rock layers or fossils that have lost the organic matter millions of years ago. Hence, it's only good for dating discoveries from several thousand year radius. There are alternative methods for older fossils, though.
  • Throughout the past decade, the numbers of U.S. forces stationed on Guam, a fairly small island in the western Pacific owned by the United States, has steadily increased as forward deployed Marines and B-2 bombers have been redeployed there from other places, like Japan. In a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee, Congressman Hank Johnson of Georgia expressed his concern that this buildup of forces could cause the island to capsize.
    • He later claimed that he was speaking figuratively, expressing concern to the island's overpopulation, not literal capsizing. Just about no-one else in the room understood him however, which wasn't helped by his completely flat voice that seemed to indicate absolute seriousness, or that he has a history and future of saying really dumb things.
  • The popular belief that southern California will drop into the sea during the "Big One", which spawned its own trope. Many faults do indeed move primarily in the vertical, but the San Andreas mostly moves horizontally. During the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, in some areas the ground rose 0.9 meters-compared to a lateral movement of 3–5 meters. Californians are much more likely to realign their fence posts than admire their new seaside view after the Big One.
    • This belief seems to be based on the assumption that once California separates entirely from the North American continent, it will simply drop off, ignoring the fact that California isn't a huge shelf attached only on its interior edge, but is, like the rest of the continent, part of the Earth's crust. Or, in other words, it will become "California Island" rather than sink into the sea. There's also the fact that people are apparently expecting it to neatly break along the state boundary.