Commentary

A Christmas (misinformation) story: Yellowstone National Park edition

By checking publicly available data, anyone can dispel social media rumors about volcanic unrest and park evacuations quickly and easily, writes guest columnist Michael Poland.

January 13, 2023 4:30 am
view of Yellowstone Caldera from the Washburn Range

This is a view of Yellowstone Caldera from the Washburn Range. The caldera extends to the base of the Red Mountains in the upper right of the photo. The rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is in the foreground. (Jacob Frank/National Park Service)

On Oct. 30, 1938, Orson Welles directed and narrated a live radio adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel “The War of the Worlds.” The incident is famous for supposedly having incited a panic that the events being described were really happening. Some people apparently thought that Martians were invading Earth!

Fast forward over 80 years to the modern day, when an incredible volume of information is literally at people’s fingertips. Such a misinterpretation of a fictional event could never recur. Right?

Or perhaps it could. This past Christmas (2022), a series of social media posts from an individual claiming to be from Wyoming made dramatic claims about geologic signs of volcanic unrest, with the implications being that Yellowstone might be acting up, and that there were official evacuations.

The information was shared and reshared widely and resulted in many concerned calls, emails, and social media questions to law enforcement, the National Park Service, and the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory. These inquiries came from all around the world.

Of course, none of the claims in the posts were true: there were no evacuations, and Yellowstone was not (and currently is not!) showing any signs of elevated volcanic unrest. Nevertheless, the publicity that the videos received became so significant that a Wyoming county sheriff’s office actually addressed the rumor directly with a public service announcement.

While this certainly makes for a good a cautionary tale about the trustworthiness of content posted on social media, the incident also provides an opportunity to highlight all of the resources that are available online and that allow anyone to check on Yellowstone activity for themselves, so that any future such claims can be easily assessed.

It is the mission of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory, which is a consortium of nine federal, academic and state organizations, to provide timely and actionable information regarding volcanic hazards. Unrest at the level reported in the Christmas 2022 hoax, even if plausible, would have prompted public statements by multiple agencies. Furthermore, these sorts of claims can be examined using a wide array of publicly available data. For example, if a lake far from Yellowstone had really been boiling (as the hoax claimed), it would show up as a thermal anomaly in satellite data, from near-real-time datasets that are used to detect fires and volcanic eruptions, to high-resolution thermal data that can be downloaded for free.

Seismic data reflecting earthquake activity at Yellowstone can be checked at the University of Utah Seismograph Stations website or can be searched via the nationwide USGS catalogGPS data that track the ups and downs of the surface are available from a variety of sites, including the University of Nevada, Reno, and USGS. Informal geyser eruption statistics can be seen at the GeyserTimes website. Streamflow conditions are available from the USGS National Water Information System. And the YVO Yellowstone monitoring map shows all monitoring stations in the region, including those with real-time data.

GPS monitoring system in Yellowstone National Park
GPS monitoring station P709 is located on the promontory between the south arm and southeast arm of Yellowstone Lake. It was installed in 2005 as part of the Yellowstone component of the National Science Foundation’s Plate Boundary Observatory under permit YELL-SCI-5546. This photo is from the UNAVCO station overview page. (Courtesy of Yellowstone Caldera Chronicles)

The Yellowstone Volcano Observatory also puts out monthly updates, along with information statements as needed. The most recent update is always posted to the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory website at https://www.usgs.gov/volcanoes/yellowstone/volcano-updates. If activity at Yellowstone were to change significantly and present hazards, new statements would be issued containing facts and analysis by Yellowstone Volcano Observatory experts. You can sign up to receive these updates to your email or phone at https://volcanoes.usgs.gov/vns2/subscribe. And if you have questions, you can always email [email protected] (as many people did on Dec. 25–26, 2022).

Yellowstone’s status as a large, charismatic, and active volcanic system that has experienced very large explosive eruptions in the past provides fertile ground for misinformation that can create undue worry. But by checking publicly available data, anyone can dispel these rumors quickly and easily.

And now, if you’ll excuse us, we need to check on up on these rumors of alien invasions we keep hearing about.

Yellowstone National Park Monitoring Resources

Yellowstone Caldera Chronicles is a weekly column written by scientists and collaborators of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory. 

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Michael Poland
Michael Poland

Mike Poland is a research geophysicist with the Cascades Volcano Observatory and the Scientist-in-Charge of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory. Mike's area of specialization is volcano geodesy, which emphasizes the surface deformation and gravity fields associated with volcanic activity. This work involves the use of space-based technologies, like Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar, as well as ground-based techniques, like microgravity surveys.

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