CODY, Wyo. — A funny thing happened on the way to the apocalypse: the Yellowstone supervolcano didn’t erupt. At least not yet.
While there’s still time for the volcanic system beneath Yellowstone National Park to explode in a cataclysmic eruption that brings about the end of the world, you probably shouldn’t cancel your weekend plans.
“Yellowstone is not behaving out of the norm right now,” said Jacob B. Lowenstern, the scientist in charge of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Yellowstone Volcano Observatory.
That’s probably a relief to most, but it might be a disappointment to the conspiracy theorists, end-times prophets and film producers who in the past few years have postulated or predicted an eruption by Friday.
Dec. 21, 2012, marks the winter solstice and the end of a 5,125-year calendar cycle used by the Mayans and other pre-Columbian MesoAmerican cultures. But it has also become a catch-all doomsday for a wide range of Armageddon scenarios, including a once-popular fantasy that involved a Yellowstone eruption.
The 2009 big-budget disaster movie "2012" featured Woody Harrelson as a talk radio host stationed in the Yellowstone caldera, broadcasting an unheralded theory about an imminent eruption. The movie included a spectacular but ridiculous action sequence in which heroic everyman John Cusack races to outrun an erupting Yellowstone supervolcano in an RV, dodging molten boulders as the ground crumbles away behind him.
But with the fateful date almost upon us, Lowenstern said there has been no alarming activity at Yellowstone, and no sudden groundswell of renewed interested from those who were calling in 2010 to ask whether Yellowstone might erupt in a couple of years.
“Given all that’s gone on in the last 10 years, this has been minor,” he said by telephone Tuesday from his office in Palo Alto, Calif.
“The real buzz over 2012 happened in 2010 and 2011 when the movies and documentaries were going full blast,” Lowenstern said.
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A flurry of films released from 2005 through last year — ranging from scientifically curious to patently ludicrous — each depicted what might happen if Yellowstone were to erupt with the historic force of geologic events from hundreds of thousands of years ago.
And playing to, or perhaps preying on, public fascination with the December 2012 “prophecies,” a handful of bloggers and websites in recent months have speculated about a Yellowstone eruption on Dec. 21.
In June, former UFO magazine editor Jon King wrote that “some experts (are) even claiming that Yellowstone is already in the early stages of a super-eruption.”
Writing on his Conscious Ape website, King noted without citing any specific sources that “with the 2012 Mayan Prophecy looming large on the geological calendar, the doomsayers are already out in force predicting a volcanic conclusion.”
As Friday approaches, doomsday fever has gripped a few pockets of true believers. Chinese authorities this week detained several members of a fringe Christian group accused of creating panic about the so-called “Mayan apocalypse.” And scientists at NASA last month took pains to specifically debunk widespread fantasies about a “rogue planet” named Nibiru predicted to collide with Earth on Dec. 21.
Alas, the latest readings from seismic sensors in Yellowstone show that the volcanic system has a “normal” status as rated by USGS.
In fact, even the occasional swarm of relatively minor earthquakes and slow bulges and sags in the earth’s crust around Yellowstone observed over the last century are all within the normal range of expected phenomena for the system, Lowenstern said.
“Yellowstone has always been at normal status,” he said. “It has never switched out of that for as long as we’ve been doing this.”