This month's breaking news from the Central Mojave: The Pisgah Crater, a cinder cone two miles south of Interstate 40 near Ludlow, California that has likely been dormant for at least 20,000 years, is not erupting.
That's right: not erupting. The US Geological Survey has even issued a press statement to that effect, after two agency geologists were interviewed by local press. Why? Because a fellow going by the name of Dutch Sinse, a conspiracy buff far from the Mojave Desert, viewed NEXRAD doppler radar videos of what would seem to be monsoonal storm cells and declared them to be "volcanic plumes" -- an eruption, of sorts, in progress.
Sinse, who generally writes about alleged tampering with weather by the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP), has a significant following on his blog and YouTube channel. Here's the video in which Sinse announces the eruption:
In the video, Sinse states that the "plume" cannot possibly be a wildfire, in part because there have been no news reports of wildfires in the area. (The similar lack of news reports on volcanic eruptions two miles off Interstate 40 escapes mention.) One YouTube commenter responds to the video saying:
I live 15 miles from the Pisgah crater and no we did not have an earthquake nor did the crater erupt! No smoke plumes no nothing just a lot of desert storms.
Sinse responds, in part:
within 3 days of this last week there was a 6.0 south in baja
The epicenter of said quake, a 5.9, was in the Sea of Cortez off Los Mochis on the Mexican mainland. Pisgah Crater is closer to Denver, Colorado than it was to that quake, which was far too weak to have been associated with a minor volcanic eruption 775 miles north.
In all likelihood, what Sinse pointed out in the above and subsequent videos were local storm cells, a wave of which has been running roughshod over the California Deserts in recent weeks. In summer, when superheated air rises from the desert floor and meets moist air coming in from the Sea of Cortez, thunderstorm cells can materialize seemingly out of nowhere, often creating small and intensely violent storms surrounded by many miles of clear sky.
The USGS had this response:
Inquiries have come to the USGS regarding a potential eruption in the vicinity of Lavic Lake Volcanic Field (LLVF) in Southern California. The inquiries stem from a citizen report noting a plume-like feature on NEXRAD radar imagery from July 23, 2011. USGS volcanologists evaluating the situation find nothing to indicate that the NEXRAD feature results from volcanic activity. Satellite images from the same period do not show the steam or ash clouds that accompany volcanic activity, and there is no seismicity in the vicinity indicative of volcanic unrest/eruption. No earthquakes were located within 20 miles of LLVF during the last week (USGS-Caltech Seismic Net update 14:10 PDT July 27, 2011 ). No reports of eruptive activity have come in from ground observers (LLVF is within 2 miles of Interstate 40) or from regional pilots (Barstow Daggett County Airport is within 10 miles of LLVF).
To sum up: a guy in the Midwest watches a doppler radar video of Mojave storm activity on the Internet and decides, in part due to apparent ignorance of Mojave weather patterns and a lack of familiarity with basic concepts of geology and mathematics, that a volcano is erupting, despite eyewitness accounts that said volcano is resting as peacefully as it has for the last 20,000 years or more. Why would the USGS bother issuing a response?
In part, it's because Dutch Sinse has a following, a network of conspiracy buffs who seem to see a new volcanic eruption in the Mojave -- and a subsequent USGS "coverup" -- as part of a vague but widespread threat to the US connected with secret HAARP research involving weather control as a war weapon,, the perennial and persistent chemtrails scare, secret plans to impose martial law on the US, and -- for some of his fans -- the looming end of the world forecast for 2012.
Sinse's prognostications spread quickly throughout the net. Within four days of the July 23 "eruption" I'd received three or four questions about it from different sets of online acquaintances. For one reason or another, this particular conspiracy theory gained traction, even inspiring some people to go out and document the plumes for themselves -- like these women, who ended up filming what looks like a convective updraft at what they thought was Pisgah Crater -- but which was actually Amboy Crater about 35 miles east of Pisgah.
Oddly, Amboy Crater's recent history offers one of the most compelling rebuttals to Dutch Sinse's speculations about Pisgah. At the end of World War II witnesses saw a thick plume of black smoke emerging from the crater, which is a few miles south of Route 66. Word spread quickly. Within a few hours the Los Angeles Times had chartered an airplane to fly over the crater to investigate. The aircraft's occupants saw firsthand the source of the smoke: a huge pile of tires and creosoted wood that a few Barstow High School students had stockpiled in the crater and ignited as a prank.
If it was that easy in the mid-1940s to check on a small volcano in the remote Mojave Desert to see if it was erupting, it certainly would be far easier now. Thousands of people see Pisgah Crater every day, and USGS vulcanologists would relish the chance to study a Mojave Desert volcanic eruption. This is the stuff of which dissertations are made and departmental budgets fortified. Few people would be more excited about a volcano coming to life in southern California than your typical USGS field scientist. An agency less likely to cover up an eruption is hard to imagine.
Dutch Sinse is far from the first person to make statements about the American deserts without actually knowing anything about them. That practice reaches at least as far back as 1845, when Lansford Hastings published a guidebook to a route across northern Utah that he had never actually seen, indirectly sending the ill-fated Donner Party to their doom. They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but it's unlikely Dutch Sinse's nonsense will hurt anyone the way Hastings did. Still. The Internet offers its users the best library in world history, and learning about the world is now far easier for the average American than it was just twenty years ago, but when you start deciding you know more about what's happening in a far away section of the Mojave Desert than do the people who actually live there, and the scientists who've made a life work of studying it, it's probably time to turn off the computer and go outside.
And take a map: you don't want to get your volcanic craters mixed up when you go. That would be embarrassing.
Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Author of Walking With Zeke, he writes regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues here every Wednesday. He lives in Palm Springs.