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Words in the news: Ring of Fire

Ring of Fire Map via USGS

This morning, we awoke to horrific news footage of a powerful earthquake and tsunami in Japan, causing major destruction. In the early hours of such events, reporters and TV meteorologists play the roll of science teacher, giving us an 8th-grade-level refresher in tectonics. Time to show the map of the Ring of Fire.

When you hear “Ring of Fire” in the news today, think about what an evocative and enduring phrase it is. Merriam-Webster has a good, non-technical definition: “A belt of volcanoes and frequent seismic activity encircling the Pacific.” As a place name, it gets capitalized. For an authoritative visual definition of the region, the U.S. Geological Survey has a pretty good map (seen at the top of this post).

I don’t know who coined the phrase Ring of Fire, but the term has been in use for at least 140 years, and probably longer. You can find it in a 1872 science textbook on Google Books:

“Stretching round the sphere of the earth, the great volcanic circle is extended toward the north by various islets of the antarctic, and ultimately rejoins the archipelago of New Zealand. Thus is completed the great ring of fire which circles round the whole surface of the Pacific Ocean.”

In pop culture, we know the phrase from the 1963 Johnny Cash classic “Ring of Fire,” a song written by June Carter and Merle Kilgore. It’s an amazing piece of songwriting, equating falling in love with being burned alive in a volcano.

My first introduction to the Ring of Fire was the 1991 IMAX film of the same title, which I remember seeing at the Maryland Science Center as a kid.

We are powerless to stop earthquakes. For now, we can’t even predict them. But geologists can help us understand why they happen. Explaining science in colorful, popular language—like Ring of Fire—helps the average person make sense of forces beyond our control or comprehension.

— By Daryl Lang. Filed under News & Journalism, Words

One comment

  1. crssy says:

    Hello, can you tell me if in the eurasian or
    Arab plates, if the country of Croatia is part of the ring of fire? Are there active volcanoes ther.

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