CODY, WYO. — Have you heard about what’s happening with the Yellowstone supervolcano?
The biggest earthquake in more than 30 years hit Yellowstone National Park in March. Bison were seen this winter pushing outside the park’s boundaries. Extremely high levels of helium are rushing out of hot springs and fumaroles. Seismic detection gear has gone haywire. The roads are melting!
All of this can only mean one thing: An eruption of the Yellowstone supervolcano is imminent, right?
There is currently no sign of any abnormal seismic activity in the park, despite a rash of rumors and outright fabrications that have swept across the Internet during the first half of 2014.
“It has been a busy year for this stuff,” said Jacob B. Lowenstern, the scientist in charge of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Yellowstone Volcano Observatory.
Lowenstern spoke earlier this month about the ongoing challenge of refuting bogus claims related to the vast geothermal system that lies beneath Yellowstone.
“Generally we get a trickle of emails at all times from people who are curious or worried,” said Lowenstern, who leads a long-running research program aimed at monitoring and studying seismic forces around Yellowstone.
“Every once in a while, there’s an uptick in the number of inquiries,” he said. “But there has been a lot more this year, for reasons I don’t fully understand.”
On Aug. 8 — well before last week’s 6.0 magnitude earthquake in Napa, Calif., and the recent seismic activity around a volcano in Iceland — Lowenstern felt the need to address a completely fabricated report of Yellowstone being “evacuated” in the face of an “imminent” eruption.
The bogus story on a dubious website referenced the real issue of “melting” asphalt on a road near a thermal feature. But it also included a number of outright falsehoods, including phony quotes attributed to seemingly credible experts. Every other story on the site appears to be completely made up, including one with the headline: “Oklahoma Man Murdered by Atomic Wedgie.”
But once a rumor goes viral on the Internet, not everyone takes the time to determine whether it might be true, Lowenstern said.
So after a rash of inquiries earlier this month, the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory posted a statement on Aug. 8 addressing the fake evacuation story and other rumors.
Chasing down every false claim about Yellowstone’s supervolcano would be a full-time job, Lowenstern said.
“It’s not something I can really control,” he said. “It’s like tilting at windmills.”
What about the other recent “signs” of an imminent eruption?
Unexpectedly high amounts of helium actually are escaping from the park’s thermal features, as detailed in a study lead by Lowenstern and published in February in the journal Nature. But that so-called “prodigious degassing” is a normal part of the park’s geothermal processes.
There was an issue with a malfunctioning seismometer, but some people insisted on wrongly interpreting faulty readings from the sensor as indicative of something significant, Lowenstern said.
A section of Firehole Lake Drive, a 3.3-mile scenic loop that passes near several thermal features north of Old Faithful, needed repairs in July when summer temperatures soared. But it’s not uncommon for park roads, parking lots or other paved surfaces to suffer bubbling asphalt from thermal hot spots.
Following a 4.8 magnitude earthquake in Yellowstone in March — the park’s largest quake in more than three decades — the National Park Service posted a video titled “Rumor Control.”
In that video, park spokesman Al Nash explains that the quake caused no damage or injuries. Furthermore, earlier reports about animals “fleeing” the park are actually based on the normal winter pattern of elk and bison migrating to lower elevations in search of food, Nash said.
“We get some pretty wild rumors out there,” Nash said in the video. “We have seen no signs to suggest that the Yellowstone volcano is about to erupt.”
Sure, but if an eruption loomed, would scientists know? And more importantly, would they tell the public?
“Absolutely,” Lowenstern said.
Part of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory’s mission is to better assess the risks of an eruption or other activity and keep decision-makers and the public informed.
“We would see signs leading up to a major eruption,” Lowenstern said. That includes specific, measurable indicators expected before any volcanic eruption, including ground deformation, gas discharge and precursor earthquakes.
“People believe that somehow because Yellowstone is bigger than other systems, it can behave differently than other volcanoes,” he said. “That’s not the case.”