Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

When the volcano blows

The latest from the "News That Isn't Actually News" department is:  We are all going to be killed in a massive eruption of the Yellowstone Supervolcano!  It could happen tomorrow!  Giant ash clouds!  Searing bursts of gas vaporizing the entire state of Wyoming!  We should prepare for the worst!  Or at least run about, making flailing arm gestures, writing overhyped articles and webpages, and overusing exclamation points!

For some reason, recently this non-story seems to be all over the news.  I've seen more than one reference to this geologic hotspot just in the last couple of days, usually accompanied by photos of the geysers and hot springs, or (in one case) by a photo of Yellowstone Lake, captioned, "It SEEMS peaceful... but hidden beneath its pristine beauty is a RED HOT MAGMA CHAMBER JUST WAITING TO BLOW."

Well, yeah, okay, technically I have to admit that they're correct.  The Yellowstone Supervolcano is a pretty scary place.  The last time it erupted, about 640,000 years ago, it produced about two thousand times the volume of ash that Mt. St. Helens did.  It is reasonable to find the prospect of this happening again terrifying.  The direct damage from the blast, the secondary damage from the ash cloud, and the climate changes which would ensue, would be devastation on a level humanity has never seen before.  (The eruption of Mt. Tambora in Indonesia in 1815, which killed 71,000 people directly and led to the "Year Without a Summer," in which there were hard freezes in July across Europe and North America, would be a mere firecracker by comparison.)

However, the hysterical tone of some of these articles, which imply that we're "overdue for an eruption" of the Yellowstone Supervolcano, is completely unwarranted.  For example, one source I read stated that the ground was rising over the magma chamber at "a rate of three inches a year," and "new geysers were forming," and that this was indicative that an eruption was imminent.  This is ridiculous, as this source conveniently omitted mention of the fact that some areas over the magma chamber are actually subsiding; and in any volcanically active area, new geysers form frequently, and others cease to flow, and this isn't indicative of anything other than the area is experiencing movement of magma -- which we already knew, because that's what "volcanically active" means.

The whole idea of "overdue for an eruption" implies that volcanoes erupt on some kind of schedule, which is nonsense.  The three known eruptions of the Yellowstone Supervolcano occurred 2.1 million, 1.3 million, and 640,000 years ago -- gaps of 800,000 and 660,000 years, respectively.  Even presuming that there was some kind of pattern, we're still 20,000 years shy of the previous gap, and 160,000 years shy of the longer one.  But, of course, a headline that says, "Massive Volcano Could Erupt Now or 160,000 Years From Now!" doesn't make people read any further.

And I'm not even going to go into the websites that claim that the Yellowstone Supervolcano is connected to (1) the 2012 lunacy, (2) the prophecies from Revelations, (3) conspiracy theories, or (4) all of the above.  If you Google "Yellowstone Supervolcano" you can find plenty of those sites for yourselves, but if you read them you have to promise me you'll try your best not to find them plausible.

In any case, if you have a vacation planned to Yellowstone, it's probably a bit premature to cancel it.  With apologies to Jimmy Buffett, I don't know where I'm-a-gonna go when the volcano blows, because chances are I'll be dead and gone before anyone has to worry about it.

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