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That West Coast Carbon Monoxide Earthquake Story That’s Going Around is BS

carbon death cloud 2

Right now there is a massive cloud of carbon monoxide spreading over the West Coast. It’s a huge plume of gas that stretches from Baja Mexico all the way up to Alaska. Pushed by offshore winds, carried by desert breezes, the toxic plume spreads with the endless exchange of high and low pressure fronts. Naturally, a cloud of anything that’s not, you know, actual clouds looming over an American coast is freaking some people out. But not for the reasons you might imagine. There are lots of people who think the massive cloud of carbon monoxide is a reliable chemical indicator a major earthquake is about to happen. Any day now.

Depending on who your friends are on Facebook, you might have seen, or soon will see, someone share a fear-wracked story about how in the days before a truly cataclysmic earthquake you can spot seismic activity that often releases a huge volume of carbon monoxide into the atmosphere. Just like we see right now. Which is why the West Coast is doomed. Stories like this have already been posted online by “news” websites, ones that offer updates on the “developing story,” and now, even larger online outlets like the DailyKos have begun to share it with their readers. If you peruse these stories, they typically cite an academic paper by Dr. Ramesh Singh that describes how a massive emission of carbon monoxide was detected before the 2001 earthquake in Gujarat, India, which killed 20,000 people.

Using this shred of science, bloggers and amateur geophysicists are now making YouTube videos to spread the word about why this death cloud of carbon monoxide is a sure sign of the Big One–the killer earthquake people on the West Coast always fear.

Here’s the map that’s freaking people out. It’s a model based on satellite imagery that represents the spread of the massive carbon monoxide cloud across North America. As you see, the thing is a beast. It’s a terrifying monster. It first appeared on February 25th. Out of nowhere.

carbon death cloud

That’s Fresno in the middle of that green circle highlighted against the black cloud. Down, in the lower left, you see those numbers? The bottom ones indicates the concentration of carbon monoxide at those map coordinates.

Those numbers indicate carbon monoxide in a concentration that’s a staggering: 37,689/ppbv (parts per billion volume.) I say staggering because 150/ppbv is the statistical average for the atmosphere.

Obviously, 37,689/ppbv is ridiculously high compared to 150/ppbv.

If you click on 36.78° N, 119.75° W in Google maps it will bring you to the 4500 block of E Shields Ave in Fresno, Calif. If you were standing at that corner, you’d be two short blocks from Duncan Polytechnic High School. And where you’d be standing the concentration of carbon monoxide would be 37,689 ppbv (with a wind speed of 4 km/h). Those aren’t lethal levels as defined by the CDC, but they can certainly make you sick.

Here’s the interactive map. Check how the winds spread the carbon monoxide cloud in real time.

That looks pretty crazy, right? So, are the amateur earthquake prediction experts correct? Should Angelenos be checking real estate prices in Nevada? Is the earth really belching up carbon monoxide just before it erupts with apocalyptic force?

To get the scoop on the end of days for L.A., I looked up Dr. Ramesh Singh, the author of the academic paper that’s being used to support the claims that the Big One should happen any day now. He’s a professor at Chapman College, here in California. One assumes, living in the danger zone, he has a vested interest in whether we should all be preparing for a killer earthquake. In a phone interview I asked Dr. Singh if he thinks the Earth is about to open up its rocky jaws and swallow California.


First off, let’s start with that real-time map of the carbon monoxide gas cloud that’s scaring so many people. What do you see when you look at that data? Is that similar to what you saw in Gujarat prior to the 2001 earthquake?
The carbon monoxide cloud that you see on the NASA modeling program— that map is showing a huge cloud of carbon monoxide which is coming from the Aliso Canyon/Porter Ranch methane leak. That methane is coming up from underground. And that methane is being converted to carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. This is why the carbon monoxide is showing a very high concentration. The plume moves depending on the wind direction. If you see the image, the plume is going north, south. Down to San Diego. So that is the wind, and the wind is taking the whole massive plume, and blowing it around, out over the ocean.

(Editor’s note: For comparison, this is the same model/map with a cardon dixoide cloud spreading; you’ll notice it follows the same pattern as the carbon monoxide cloud. Just not in such high concentrations.)

To be clear, you don’t see these gas clouds as a sign of seismic activity?
Some people have put this news out on their website that this huge amount of carbon monoxide could be the sign of a big earthquake. And they’re citing my paper, which I did for the Gujarat earthquake in 2001. This is really too bad. People are so afraid. Since the morning, I’ve gotten about 25 emails saying that the whole area should be evacuated, and this and that.

You think the bloggers and YouTubers misunderstand and are misapplying your academic paper when they claim a carbon monoxide plume like this one is a predictor of a massive earthquake?
There is no sign. There is no prediction technique by which one can predict an earthquake. (laughs) This is from the Aliso Canyon ground storage methane leak, which is then being converted into carbon monoxide.

So you’re saying this enormous odorless carbon monoxide cloud that’s spreading over the West Coast is from the Aliso Canyon leak? If that’s it, how does all that methane turn into carbon monoxide?
There’s a chemical reaction. Methane has a very short life in the sky. It reacts and converts into water and carbon dioxide and monoxide. This is why the carbon monoxide concentration is very, very high.

You’ve been dragged into this predictive earthquake debate because in your paper about the 2001 Gujarat earthquake you pointed out that there was a huge column of carbon monoxide released, and that it peaked a week before the earthquake’s major event. We’ve had this “peaking” carbon monoxide cloud for almost a week. Could we be right on schedule for a major earthquake?
Look, a small amount of knowledge is always dangerous. (laughs) Who is afraid of earthquakes? We should not be afraid of earthquakes. An earthquake can occur at any time. Instead of being afraid we should build good buildings. We should design better structures.

Prepare as much as we can, but don’t live in fear of the unknown?
Yeah, right. This is the code to life.

If you were a betting man, would you put the odds at miniscule that this massive carbon monoxide cloud is an indicator of an imminent major earthquake?
No, no, I am not saying that. What I am saying is that this carbon monoxide we are seeing in the air is due to the Aliso Ranch underground storage leak.

Fair enough. Do you think there’s a possibility that there could be data hiding inside the data? Like, what if the Aliso Canyon methane leak masks a concurrent leak of carbon monoxide that’s being released from seismic activity? What if we miss the signs of the earthquake because we’re looking at the gas cloud?
No. Because in California we’ve never found any evidence of the release of gases prior to an earthquake. So, there is no question of an earthquake sign.

To put it plain terms for the skeptical, you’re saying scientists have never seen an earthquake in California preceded by a release of a giant gas cloud from the earth? Right, right. People should not be afraid of any earthquake or this whole business that carbon monoxide is associated with earthquakes, when it’s the Aliso Canyon leak.


So, there you have it. You don’t need to be afraid that the enormous cloud of carbon monoxide spreading from Alaska to Baja Mexico is the sign of the Big One. There’s no way to know when one will happen. Which, in this case, that lack of foreknowledge should free you from your fear of the unknown.


Zaron Burnett is a roving correspondent for Playboy. Follow him on Twitter: Zaron3.

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