Once Again, Yellowstone Is Not Erupting And Killing Us All

Someone, somewhere, decided that Yellowstone was in a period of unusually high geologic activity and facing major road closures and evacuations, and therefore was in danger of imminent eruption. This is all so ridiculously untrue, I hesitate to even use the "debunkery" tag because it's hard to believe it needs debunking.

An erupting geyser and a rainbow? Far too pretty for imminent doom. Image credit: Al_HikesAZ, 2008


The National Parks Service is a bit more polite about it, running an alert reading:

The park has not been evacuated. No volcanologists have stated that Yellowstone is likely to erupt this week, this month or this year. Concern over road closures is much overblown.

But seriously, are we doing this again already? It's only been a few months since a stampede of bison triggering the conspiracy theorists, because bison never run for any reason ever, right? This time, I have no idea what set the rumours off (boredom? hurricane-induced disaster-jealousy? bad cheese?), and I refuse to provide the prestige of links and traffic to the fear-mongers.

If you hadn't heard the rumours until now, good. Congratulate your social media friends for not spreading baseless rumours, toast your common sense, and have a celebratory drink to relax. If you had heard the rumours, if the mere mention of the doomsday-favourite supervolcano has filled you with ominous dread, or if you just find glee in marvelling over how completely illogical conspiracy theories can be, here's a specific debunker for this round of nonsense with help from a notice from the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory:


The notice starts off so painfully polite, you know the research staff must have been banging their heads against their desks in frustration that they had to haul themselves inside during perfect summer field-days to address the unjustified concern:

Though we love doing research at YVO, we prefer it when the research is on topics geological rather than the origin of false rumors. Nevertheless, we have received enough concerned emails and phone calls that we've spent some time tracking down a few of the statements made on various "alternative Internet news sources."


The list of debunkering falls into five categories:

1. Geological activity is going crazy, ruuunnnnnn!!!!

See for yourself: this is the live geophysical monitoring feed from the park. You might seen an earthquake. Do you see a massive, catastrophic swarm of high magnitude earthquakes? No? Awesome.


Hauling around seismometers is strictly decorative: postdocs do it for the invigorating exercise and don't bother actually hooking them up to collect data, right? Image credit: USGS


Here's the official evaluation of the activity level from the researchers who have been living with this location and its quirks for years, monitoring it daily, repairing equipment, adding more stations, and otherwise finding ways to track every geologic rumble, burp, and rustle:

[E]veryone should know that geological activity, including earthquakes and ground uplift/subsidence is well within historical norms and seismicity is actually a bit low at present.


If the live feed is overwhelming in its data density, or if you aren't sure what normal small earthquakes look like compared to a doomsday swarm, you can always hit up the main page of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory and look for the current activity level (normal) and alert level (green), and even read a detailed analysis of the data determining those levels.

2. A road MELTED into a bubbling, gooey mess!!!

Yes, it did. What else do you expect in a location where the ground temperature approaches that of boiling water?! Between the intense thermal environment and ridiculously cold winters, the roads in Yellowstone undergo a lot of stress. Bubbling asphalt isn't exactly a frequent occurrence, but it's also not freakishly unusual.


Firehole Lake Drive, a 3-mile long side road, was closed for 2 days for maintenance. Credit: Yellowstone National Park


Most hilariously, the doomsday-forecasting road-of-ominous was a small side road closed for just two days of maintenance:

Concern over road closures is much overblown. There's been one road closure of a small side road – just over three miles long – that was closed for two days. As one can imagine, it is not easy to maintain roads that pass over thermal areas where ground temperatures can approach those of boiling water. Roads at Yellowstone often need repair because of damage by thermal features as well as extreme cold winter conditions.


Considering the maintenance crew had to scrape up the goop and lay down sand and lime to soak up any remaining mess, I'm impressed they got it fixed and reopened so quickly! Any time the Yellowstone road maintenance crew want to come fix potholes in my neighbourhood, they are more than welcome.

3. But they've evacuated everyone!!1one

No, they haven't. The park is open. You can even go visit it yourself, although you'll need to pay a totally reasonable fee to help maintain the facilities, improve accessibility, and monitor resources. Need proof?


Different year, same Old Faithful geyser, same summer crowds. Image credit: Ed Austin/Herb Jones, 1987

The park has not been evacuated. This one is pretty easy to verify by everyone. If the Old Faithful webcam shows people, or if news articles are coming out about a hobbyist's remote control helicopter crashing into a hot spring, Yellowstone is certainly open for business.


My only questions is, if someone checks out the webcams in the middle of the night and sees no one clustered around the geyser because it's a dark, unlighted park, are we allowed to spazz and declare it's because the world is about to end? Or should we settle for the more plausible, "Every tourist in Yellowstone has been eaten by wolves."?

4. But Volcanologist Infallible McImaginary-Pants said Yellowstone was about to blow!!!!!!


This is the most frustrating and sad bit of evidence: someone full-on made this up, and attributed the quote to an actual geologist who has nothing to do with it.


A mud volcano in Crater Hills Geyser is about as threatening as the current activity level at Yellowstone. Image credit: J Schmidt; 1977

No volcanologists have stated that Yellowstone is likely to erupt this week, this month or this year. In one recent article, a name was attributed to a "senior volcanologist", but that person does not appear to exist, and a geologist with that name assures us that he did not supply any quotes regarding Yellowstone.


This is the saddest part of this month's edition of "Yellowstone's Going To Blow! No, I Mean It This Time!", as some innocent geologist's name was hijacked to lend a sense of authority to an imaginary mouthpiece spouting nonsense. I'm sorry, McImaginary, and I hope your employers and any future Human Resources search-engine stalkers have well-enough developed critical thinking skills to ask you about it instead of giving a black mark to your credibility because someone stole your name.

5. But it's going to happen for real this time!!!1!

I'm already tired of debunking Yellowstone rumours, and I've only had to deal with this and the bison-stampede-eruption since I started this gig. With several years more experience, the USGS is even more unimpressed that they're having to officially announce that Yellowstone isn't preparing to kill us this week, again.


Pesky volcanologists with their fancy GPS sensors to detect millimetres of ground motion, they have no idea what they're talking about! Image credit: USGS

Finally, we note that those who've kept track of Yellowstone over the past decade or so, have seen a constant stream of "predictions" regarding imminent eruptions at Yellowstone. Many have had specific dates in mind, none had a scientific basis, and none have come true.


This type of baseless concern happens often enough that Wired's Erik Klemetti on wrote a lovely generic debunker for Yellowstone panic. It's a handy checklist for validating fears of imminent catastrophe that this current round of fear utterly fails to pass. If you're ever feeling an itch of supervolcano doom, I highly recommend going through those four steps to reality-check the situation before spreading the fear around.


The Grand Prismatic Spring in Midway Basin, Yellowstone is very pretty, and not killing us this week. Image credit: Frank Kovalchek

From there, the notice moves from frustrated to something with more bite, and I can't say I blame them. It has to be so frustrating to go to work every day for years trying to investigate the real science of the beautiful and exotic setting, only to periodically get yanked out to be a calm and reasonable Responsible Adult while trying to find a logical response to a bunch of downright nonsensical conspiracy-laden ramblings. Within that context, borderline snarkiness is totally appropriate:

We will continue to provide updates on geological activity at Yellowstone, and educational materials to help understand the science around Yellowstone monitoring.

Virtually everything known about Yellowstone's spectacular volcanic past comes from the scientists who work at this observatory, at all our eight member agencies. We're the ones who mapped the deposits, figured out the ages of the eruptions, measured the gases, located the earthquakes, and tracked the ground movement. A few of us have been doing it for over forty years. We will continue to help you understand what's happening at Yellowstone now, and what's likely to happen in the future.


So, is Yellowstone a beautiful, impressive supervolcano, an intensely interesting thermal location, and a stunning destination for summer vacation? Yes. Is it a looming catastrophe ready to destroy the western United States within days, weeks, or even months? No. So quit worrying, and bring me back some gorgeous photos and field stories.

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