According to the website Preppers World USA, the supervolcano bubbling beneath Yellowstone National Park is showing imminent signs of annihilating everything within a 500-mile radius, covering most of the country in ash and sending the planet into a prolonged nuclear winter. In other words, it’s a doomsday prepper’s wet dream.
As Outside contributor Emily Matchar wrote in the June 2012 issue, preppers constitute a “growing subculture of Americans who spend time and money—lots of both—preparing for apocalyptic scenarios of various stripes.” They think the end is coming, and many have invested in stockpiles of water, gold, nonperishable food, and weapons.
The “worrying developments” cited by Preppers World include earthquakes, the excretion of “a gas called helium-4, a very rare type of helium,” and a 1.4-inch uplift of the ground in a circular pattern—“circular, as in the round mouth of a volcano”—that indicates pressurization, something like a deep magma pustule in the earth’s crust.
And of course, because the dimple and the helium-4 actually do exist and were detailed in a pair of unrelated reports, released on February 18 and 20, by researchers from the USGS Yellowstone Volcano Observatory (YVO), the Preppers World story had just enough basis in fact to race around the Internet almost as fast as that map of the Fukushima radiation plume. Websites like BeforeItsNews and the End Times Forecaster blog began issuing caps-lock alerts.
There’s just one problem: none of the volcano observations look any different from what’s been recorded at Yellowstone in the past century. “These guys could take a study on pika farts and reinterpret it as a looming indicator of destruction,” YVO research geologist Jacob Lowenstern, 50, told me. “The only thing that has changed lately is the ability to spread rumors quickly via social media, and the willingness of some of the authors to misrepresent monitoring data that’s on the Internet.”
Its hardly the first time. Mass-media interest in the Yellowstone volcano began about ten years ago with the fictionalized BBC docudrama Supervolcano. This January, after a seismometer conked out and produced a stream of static, the Internet went wild with reports of earthquake swarms, as they’re called, that definitely foretold the coming of the big one. On February 5, Lowenstern and the YVO issued a report politely cautioning doomsayers: “These noise bursts … can appear alarming to the inexperienced eye.”
In this latest Preppers World false alarm, the author confused helium-4—the most common form—with helium-3, which can show an uptick with volcanic activity. The large quantity of helium-4 that Lowenstern and his coauthors discovered was interesting (Slate made a cool Web video explaining it), but it has nothing to do with a coming eruption. The 1.4-inch uplift is real, but uplifts are also fairly common. The last one began in 1996 and subsided in 2003.
“There are no changes that indicate an eruption is near,” says Lowenstern. “The volcano hasn’t erupted for 70,000 years.” In case you’re still worried, it’s worth noting that the USGS has a dedicated Volcano Hazards Program tasked with monitoring every possibly active volcano in the country and assigning each a warning level and a color-coded aviation advisory. The Department of Homeland Security actually based its terrorism alerts on those of the Volcano Hazards Program. Yellowstone is listed as normal and green.
The trouble is, once you’re betting on TEOTWAWKI (the end of the world as we know it, in prepper lingo), you’re bound to be a little disappointed when it doesn’t arrive. There’s always next time.