The case of the crazy conspiracist

Earthquakes of the last 7 days. Plenty of data to cherry-pick should you so want.

I was browsing over the USGS site this morning looking for some stuff and came across this.

It’s basically a statement put out by the USGS stating that the Lavic Lake Volcanic Field (LLVF) in California is not erupting, contrary to reports.  I’d not heard any reports, and it’s not often you see a claim like this for a volcano which is at a ‘green’ and ‘normal’ alert (i.e. it’s not doing anything, it hasn’t done anything, and we’re not expecting it to do anything).  What on earth had happened to cause the USGS to publish a notification for what at first glance appears to be a completely dormant volcano with no signs of unrest in the middle of one of the most densely populated states in the USA?

“The inquiries stem from a citizen report noting a plume-like feature on NEXRAD radar imagery from July 23, 2011”

This piqued my interest – firstly as I’d never heard of the LLVF, and secondly that the citizens reports had got widespread enough for the USGS to feel like it had to issue a statement in the first place.  So off to Google it was.

Firstly, chemistry. The LLVF is a basaltic volcano complex, generally producing hot runny pahoehoe lava, rather than any significant explosive product (take a look at my volcanic hazards posts number 2 and number 3 for why that might be of interest).

Secondly, geological history. Most of the complex hasn’t erupted for about 20,000 years or so.  That’s a fairly significant amount of time to go without an eruption, and may mean a change in eruption type from what you might expect (the magma source may have been sat in a chamber cooling and evolving over time). There are some signs there might be younger material, but it hasn’t been properly dated.

Thirdly, location. The field is about 2km from Interstate 40 – what I would imagine is a pretty busy road, and the main route between Longbeach and Flagstaff.

the NEXRAD  system is primarily designed for looking at weather systems.  Radar works by sending out a pulse of energy, then measuring the reflection of the energy coming back.  The NEXRAD system is a doppler radar – meaning it can also measure how fast the thing that reflected the energy was moving away or towards the radar station.  By reflecting off dust particles  or water vapour and suchlike, it will get an impression of how airbodies are moving.  A volcano will easily throw up enough material to be detected, but you have to bear in mind that the radar is sensitive enough for plenty of other things to show up too.

So it’s plausible that NEXRAD would show up a volcanic plume, it’s plausible that the LLV would produce an ash plume, but when you’re right next to an interstate highway surely there are easy ways to confirm an eruption?  The Nabro eruption in Eritrea in June was remote enough that satellites were the first to detect it, but this LLV site is also right on top of the Twentynine Palms Marine base (pop ~8,400) – a place which I would expect to have a huge amount of monitoring, security, and communications capacity to report this sort of thing rapidly and effectively.

At this point I was tempted to just leave it, but I got intrigued as to how this story had possibly propagated to this point.  First I found this.  Dutchsinse – apparantly the source of all these rumours – is a Proper Conspiracy Nutjob.  This is a man who is convinced that there is an increase in activity being shown “on every continent, at every volcano” around the world.  The really disturbing thing is his YouTube channel has over 30,000 subscribers.

With the appliance of some pretty graphics he sits there declaring complete and utter nonsense and a cohort of similarly-inclined people without the capacity to critically evaluate this nonsense lap it up.  He declares a volcano has erupted on the basis of a weather satellite, yet glosses over the fact that there was no co-incident seismic activity,  and the fact that the 8,400 marines practically on top of it missed it. He also presumably decided that nothing would be visible 2 km away on a busy highway.  He even suggests that it couldn’t possibly be due to wildfires as there had been “no reporting of such an event”.  Whereas a volcano is obviously likely to escape similar observation…

Conspiracy theorists fascinate me.  This one even goes so far as to try and debunk the subsequent USGS statement, but goes about it in a way which beautifully illustrates the conspiracy theorist mentality.  I highly recommend watching the video below – it’s enlightening in exactly the opposite way the author intended.

I think it is best summed up by his statement  (4’43”):

“When you see that 3.6 [magnitude earthquake], that means old dormant volcanoes, thousands of years old that don’t normally show activity are starting to come back – they’re starting to pop up again. They’re starting to show activity.”

He bases this on:

  1. Admitting there is no seismic activity related to the plume he is still convinced popped up at the LLVF.
  2. Identifying a single earthquake of many, for no apparant reason other than it occurs near a crater-like feature in the topography.
  3. Associating that earthquake with activation (for which there is no evidence) of what he claims is a volcanic crater.
  4. Going on to admit that the ‘crater’ is not associated with any other volcanic features.

At 5’39” he says he would like to hear the other normal explanation.  Here is my response.

  • The presented explanation is in no way normal.
  • Associating a single seismic event (in an active mountain building zone) with volcanism is beyond lunacy.
  • What has been detected is a weather system at the LLVF. The doppler radar detected an upwelling air body (hot air rises, you’re in a desert), possibly loaded with a large amound of particluate material (dust stirred up by the wind which is driven by the large amounts of rising buoyant air for exampe).
  • The earthquakes identified are not related in any way to volcanism (volcanoes tend to display a different style of seismicity to tectonic faults – this blog is a good way to familiarise yourself with the difference, although in my opinion even he has a tendancy to over-interpret what may often by signals from glaciers).

Still, this is the kind of crackpot who will still try and claim victory over the USGS on the matter. Because a logo that includes a barred red circle over a masonic pyramid clearly is that of a rational human being with absolutely no paranoid fears about the entire world being  controlled by some unseen power.  I was going to litter that sentence with links to various articles from his blog highlighting them, but I had too much difficulty narrowing down which ones to use.

The eagerness with which some people jump on conspiracies is an interesting theme in human psychology, and nowhere does it better than the USA.  However, it’s the first time to my knowledge that someone has managed to claim a volcanic eruption in a populated area, and – in the face of a complete lack of corroborating evidence from the local population, scientific establishment, Twitter, Facebook and the rest of the intertubes – still managed to gain enough traction to require a response from a body like the USGS.

About Pete Rowley

Earth Scientist with a background in volcanology and sedimentology. Enjoys a good rant, beer, and games. Dislikes reality TV, crowds, and unreasonable people.
This entry was posted in Earthquakes, Education, Geology, Geophysics, Hazard Assessment, Media & Perception, Science, Volcanism and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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