So, You Think Yellowstone Is About to Erupt

Rocky Planet iconRocky PlanetBy Erik KlemettiFeb 6, 2014 10:21 PM


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The Yellowstone Caldera - the source of boundless internet rumors. Image: Erik Klemetti The internet is a funny place. It is a bounty of incredible scientific information the likes of which the average person has never had at their fingertips. It is also a place where unsubstantiated and downright wrong rumors can catch fire and sweep people away in a fury. One of the biggest culprits in generating these blazes, at least in my neck of the woods, is Yellowstone Caldera. Very few volcanoes can offer the same insta-panic reaction that Yellowstone can, which leads to people either (a) making all sorts of wild conjectures out of fear and (b) making all sorts of wild conjectures out of malicious mischief. Many of you have emailed or tweeted me about the various flavors of Yellowstone rumors that abound (like the one recently that claims an eruption is about to occur) based on the misbehavior of a single seismometer. The Yellowstone Volcano Observatory had this to say about the borehole B944 seismometer:

The [Yellowstone eruption coming] story appears to be based on a misinterpretation of public "webicorders", which are graphics depicting seismic data, on the University of Utah Seismographic Station (UUSS) web site (UU operates the Yellowstone Seismic Network). A borehole seismometer called "B944", located near the West Thumb region of the Park, has been malfunctioning in recent weeks with strong bursts of electronic noise contaminating its data. These noise bursts appear as wild excursions on the B944 webicorders that can appear alarming to the inexperienced eye.

With this in mind, I wanted to offer something like a pamphlet that you would used to be able to get if you sent a self-addressed stamped envelope to Pueblo, Colorado. You should refer to this every time you read a rumor or forum post that Yellowstone is on the verge of a massive eruption that will destroy civilization as we know it. Enjoy! So, You Think Yellowstone is About to Erupt We've heard it all before: "Doomsday is around the corner," they yell from the street corner. Don't be fooled by these charlatans and rabble-rousers -- instead, be the person who knows what to do if you hear a rumor that Yellowstone Caldera is about to have an eruption. There are some simple steps and considerations to take if you hear the local prepper or conspiracy nut trying to convince people that the end is near. 1. Consider your source: You see a article claiming that there is evidence that an eruption is going to happen very soon at Yellowstone for [fill in reason]. The first important step you should take is determine the source of this information -- and by that, I mean who is making the determination that [reason] is clearly the precursor to an eruption. There are two reliable sources for such an interpretation of any data at Yellowstone Caldera: (1) the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory, operated by the US Geological Survey Volcanic Hazards Program and (2) University of Utah Yellowstone Plume, Hotspot, Teton Fault and Wasatch Front Earthquake Research page (in that order). YVO is the be-all and end-all when it comes to the status of the caldera, which you can check on their website. Unless the news of an impending eruption is coming from YVO, do not believe it. The folks who run YVO are experts on Yellowstone, so why should you believe some crackpot who thinks they know better? It would be like going to the doctor and being told you don't need a liver transplant, but then doing it anyway because the guy at the gas station said you look like you need one. Need more convincing? Watch this video from last month (January 2014) by Scientist-in-Charge at YVO, Dr. Jacob Lowenstern, about the state of the caldera. 2. Consider the data: You read the latest forum post by ChaosLvr88 claiming that they have the evidence that a Yellowstone eruption is about to occur. They say that a single seismometer starting acting crazy, running rail-to-rail and then stopped transmitting data (note: amazing that we can get real-time data of seismicity, free for public to see, isn't it? Go government! Check this primer out on how to read these instruments.) Stop and consider this for a moment. Yellowstone is a giant volcano -- enormous on almost any measure of volcanic features on Earth. If it were about to have a massive eruption, would that be record on only a single instrument? The caldera is littered with seismometers, GPS units and more monitoring equipment than you can imagine. If an eruption was coming -- and soon -- you would expect (nay, should expect) that it would be felt all across the caldera on lots of instruments. Now, Yellowstone, even on a normal day, has dozens of small earthquakes. It is a restless caldera that rises and falls with hot fluids (mostly water) coursing through the crust, so you should expect earthquakes. However, if magma was rising with the intent to eruption, you should expect hundreds if not thousands of earthquakes, all centralized in a specific area and all suggesting dilation of the crust (as magma pushes through). This would be felt across the whole area -- so if it is only a single seismometer giving the anomalous signal, then it is likely an problem with the instrument rather than impending doom. Here you should turn to Occam's Razor: Does it make more sense that the instrument is broken or that no one but ChaosLvr88 has noticed that Yellowstone is about to erupt? 3. Consider the scale of things: Let's say that the criteria presented in (1) and (2) suggest an eruption is in the works because the evidence is coming from all over the caldera and YVO agrees an eruption is coming. Does this mean we should crack each other's heads open and feast on the goo inside? Of course not! When you look at the full history of the caldera, any new eruption is more than likely to be small (relative to the caldera-forming massive eruptions), maybe on the order of a Mount St. Helens or Puyehue-Cordón Caulle event. If we were running up to a massive event, then we should expect to see massive signs, like hundreds of meters of uplift (not the centimeters of uplift we see regularly around the caldera). So, if there are signs of an eruption, you should expect that we will see an impressive rhyolite eruption probably one of the best places it could happen -- away from large population centers -- rather than the far-fetched idea of ending civilization as we know it, so stop that the Costco Meals-for-Year order. 4. Consider the motivation: If you read that Yellowstone is going to erupt, look at the people/person telling you and consider their motivations. If they are preppers, then maybe they want to justify the expense of their lifestyle choices and get a thrill out of a doomsday scenario. If they are religious, maybe they long for the start of Revelations. If they are a conspiracy nut, well, then I can't help you with that motivation. They likely also believe that the Moon landing was faked and that the Yeti will start at third base for the Yankees this year. None of these groups have motivations that compel them to live within the evidence presented, but rather want to grasp at the straws available to incite panic and fear. USGS geologists are motivated to keep the public safe and to understand what is actually occurring at the caldera. Once you've moved through these 4 steps, you'll find that 99.9 percent of all Yellowstone eruptions rumors are untrue, and you can go back to your normal life. Spread the word to your friends, co-workers and family: Don't let the purveyors of misinformation send you down the path to panic. Instead, stand up to them and use reason and science to turn them away!

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