Another Scary Rumor About Yellowstone Has Appeared. Here's What You Need to Know
By Robin Andrews
Sigh. Here we go again: another series of incredibly irresponsible articles spreading false information about an upcoming eruption in Yellowstone National Park are doing the rounds. “Earthquake swarm hits deadly caldera which could be sign of ERUPTION” one such headline blares.
There is zero evidence that this claims is true. If it was, the first people to notify you of this information would be the United States Geological Survey and their Yellowstone Volcano Observatory, because – funnily enough – that is literally their jobs. Just in case you’re wondering, though, here are the facts.
Yellowstone is a supervolcano, but that probably doesn’t mean what you think it means. In reality, a supervolcano is one in which, per the USGS, is any volcanic center that has explosively erupted at least 1,000 cubic kilometers (240 cubic miles) of fresh volcanic material in a sudden, violent manner – in a so-called supereruption – often producing a huge depression crater named a caldera. This has happened twice in Yellowstone’s 2.1-million-year-long history, and in total, Yellowstone has experienced three rather massive, voluminous eruptions.
For most of its lifetime, though, Yellowstone has engaged in two far more benign forms of eruptive activity: lava flows, and hydrothermal blasts. The former have always been isolated to the area around what is now the national park; the latter – which happens when water gets mixed up with superheated rock or magma/lava, causing an explosive release of heat – also abides by the same rules.
There is no sign whatsoever that Yellowstone today is capable of any of these eruption styles. Its colossal magma cache is mostly solid, and it needs to be half-molten in order for an eruption to occur. So chill; nothing volcanically dangerous is going to take place at Yellowstone in the near future or likely within one or many lifetimes.
Yellowstone National Park does experience earthquakes, most of which are far too weak to be felt by humans. There are multiple reasons for these quakes, ranging from the natural deformation of the ground due to underlying geothermal activity to the inexorable pull of the North American tectonic plate it sits on as it’s stretched by titanic forces either side. Every now and then, you get a rather powerful earthquake, like the magnitude 7.2 Hebgen Lake quake, and you could argue that these are more likely to threaten people than anything volcanic.
In any case, there’s no evidence that a magnitude 8 quake is about to strike Yellowstone. Here’s the golden rule: if anyone says that they can predict when and where a quake will be, and how powerful it will be, they are either deluded or a charlatan. Based on probabilities and knowledge of faults, scientists can forecast where quakes might occur and roughly how powerful they will be, but there’s a huge margin of error – saying that there’s a 30 percent chance of a magnitude 6 quake striking an area in the next fifty years or so, for example, is the best scientists can do at present. Seismology is hard. Volcanology is hard. Don’t believe soothsayers on the web, or articles that are literally making stuff up or making a big deal of completely unsubstantiated claims.
The latest examples appear to have been, er, inspired by a recent USGS update on Yellowstone’s activity. “During April 2019,” it reads, “the University of Utah Seismograph Stations, responsible for the operation and analysis of the Yellowstone Seismic Network, located 57 earthquakes in the Yellowstone National Park region. The largest event was a microearthquake of magnitude 2.6.”
This activity is entirely normal for a huge volcanic center like Yellowstone. It’s an active site, with constant swirling of superheated fluids moving underground, and with a myriad of faults that slip and slide every now and then. Earthquake swarms – collections of quakes located close in both time and space – are par for the course. Like all the recent and rather exciting activity at the surface, from excitable geysers putting on a show to new thermal spots cropping up in the wilderness, this is Yellowstone as it should be. It’d only be strange if nothing was happening, come to think of it.
So there you go. Don’t believe the fearmongering, and don’t share such tales without checking to see what scientists themselves are saying first.
I’m not naïve enough to think that these debunker posts will actually convince fearmongers to stop peddling their nonsense, by the way, but every little helps when it comes to the unvarnished truth, I suspect. Besides, if someone doesn’t point out that, yes, of course the story about the “tremor mystic” claiming that the world will be razed by a magnitude 8 earthquake later today is full-blown crap, who will?