There are many stories about Yellowstone today by journalists saying it will erupt as a super volcano soon and that the effects will be devastating. No that is not what the study was about.

First, there is no sign of it erupting.

Then what about the study? The  scientists looked at when it last erupted as a supervolcano 631,000 years ago years ago. They think there was a magma mixing event a few decades before the eruption. The research was about the timing of that event. It wasn't about how to predict the next eruption.

Here is Christy Till responding, when asked if his study had anything to do with predicting an imminent eruption.

Mike Poland of the USGS, scientist in charge of the Yellowstone Volcanic Observatory, in respond to an email to a friend of mine wrote:

"Unfortunately, the NY Times article, which was then picked up by a number of other news outlets, is a good example of how some research can be misunderstood, exaggerated, and sensationalized.  The research being described by the news articles is actually about the eruption that occurred approximately 631,000 years ago.  Researchers think that there might have been some sort of magma mixing event a few decades before that eruption.  The research has nothing to do with the current conditions beneath Yellowstone.  This is a critically important bit of information that most news outlets seem to have omitted, perhaps in order to make their story more attractive to readers."

"We have no indication that there is any similar magma mixing event happening now, and surely we would know from earthquake activity, ground deformation, thermal anomalies, water chemistry, and other indicators that would show changes.  Yellowstone is one of the best monitored volcanoes on Earth, so these are changes we would not miss! "

(He gave me permission to use this quote in this article thanking me for helping to "tamp down the nonsense")

Nobody even knows if it will ever erupt again as a supervolcano. It may have finished doing that.

There are between 1.4 and 22 supervolcanic eruptions for the whole world every million years

Chance per century: between one chance in 500 and one chance in 7000 approximately.

Understanding supervolcanoes better will not change those numbers which are based on counting how many actually happened in the geological record.


I never expected this short article to get so much attention. Originally I meant it for the likes of young children scared about Yellowstone, not so much, scientists wanting to learn about the research. I run a facebook group Doomsday Debunked to help people who get scared of Doomsday stories. Many of them are young children. Facebook has a requirement that its members must be at least 13 and yes, 13 year olds also get scared by Doomsday stories. Indeed 11 and 12 year olds get scared too but we don't hear from them except occasionally via their parents. The other main category affected are young parents with babies scared the world willl end befor their babies can grow up.,

By scared I mean vomiting, panic attacks, crying constantly, often unable to eat or sleep, sometimes in hospital for the phsyical effects of their fear on their bodies, receiving therapy and medication, and many of them also suicidal (finding the fear that the world will end unbearable and wanting to kill themselves to try to get away from the fear). They can be severely impacted in their lives by stories that suggest the world will end suddenly and completely before they can grow to adulthood. In separate incidents two sixteen year old girls have been confirmed to commit suicide over end of world stories and there is reason to believe many more have done so.

I wish we could reach them with our group. Anyway, they were getting very scared by all these articles on this story, especially as a fake prophet David Meade had prophesied a near future eruption of Yellowstone amongst numerous other things and this seemed scientific confirmation. For this, see Trump: “Must It Be Today Jesus? Three Years Left Of My Presidency!” David Meade’s Bonkers Prophesies For October

I got so many scared comments and PM's in such a short time over this story that I wanted to try to reach more of them with this article. So I pressed publish right away without the usual final stage of copy editing and spell checking and without adding sources which can take a while.

If you believe the likes of the NY Times article please see this page on Snopes: New Research Suggests Massive Yellowstone Eruption Could Occur Sooner Than Expected? Even the NY Times can get things badly wrong. 

There's a popular view about Yellowstone that it will happen soon and kill us all. This has become such a strong view apparently, that anyone who says something different can seem to have got it wrong. When you read the comments please bear in mind the first 15 were written in comment on an earlier version of this article that did not give any sources because I wrote it quickly. I have added sources now plus some extra material.


EFFECTS OF A SUPERVOLCANO

This is very very unlikely to happen in any of our lifetimes. I think I'll just quote from Snopes as they did their research well:

"While media outlets frequently raise the specter of an apocalyptic supereruption from the Yellowstone caldera, and while the region has indeed produced massive Earth-altering events in the past, scientists remain convinced, based on the size and shape of the current magma chamber, that such an eruption — were it to happen again — would likely not occur in our lifetimes. The USGS considers the risk of a caldera-forming apocalypse at Yellowstone in the next couple of thousand years “exceedingly low”."

This image shows the distribution of the dust after a typical Yellowstone supervolcano eruption if it happened today:

I'm basing this on : Modeling the Ash Distribution of a Yellowstone Supereruption (2014) and the paper itself is Modeling ash fall distribution from a Yellowstone supereruption

The ash would be only 1–3 mms thick in New York. It would disappear in the next rainy day. I don't mean it would dissolve in the water like mud but washed away like sand. Jet planes would be grounded during the eruption US wide.

Closer to the eruption, if it happens in the growing season, dust smothers crops and you lose that year’s harvest.

It would not destroy mankind or anything like. You’d have plenty of warning, drills and so on.

Most people would need face masks to prevent them breathing in the dust immediately after the eruption.

SUPERVOLCANO AUTUMN

The main effects are later, a “supervolcano autumn -not winter. World cooler by 10 C for a decade. In most places this is the difference between summer and autumn.

Farmers have to grow crops bred for cooler conditions. Can still grow food - change the crops. This needs preparation to work most smoothly

Food has to be stockpiled for the failure of the harvest if it happens in the growing season. One way to do it would be to ration meat so that the food normally fed to cattle can be stockpiled (they are fed a lot of food humans could eat as well as grass) as well as make more land available for crops.

For details, see Extreme Geohazards: Reducing the Disaster Risk and Increasing Resilience

MOST LIKELY ERUPTION

Once again there is no sign at all that Yellowstone will erupt at all at present,even in the far more common lava flows and smaller eruptions. For instance the recent swarm of tremors is normal. Ignore fake prophets that claim to be able to predict eruptions.

There are teams of scientists studying Yellowstone. They understand it very well. They are not just guessing and playing with numbers. They know their subject and have trained for many many years in geology.

Listen to them. Check out what the USGS say. See for instance the USGS FAQ here Volcano Hazards Program YVO Yellowstone

Do not listen to what the papers say, even big ones like the NY Times or what movies show. They have built up a popular consensus over years that Yellowstone is about to erupt soon, and that the effects would kill us all. This is completely false. The scientists patiently try to explain but are ignored.

So what do we expect next if it does erupt?

There have been 80 non explosive eruptions in the last 640,000 years since the last supervolcano eruption. The last 20 of those were mainly lava flows. An eruption like that would disrupt activities in the Yellowstone national park itself, but it’s likely to lead to few deaths and would not be catastrophic.

Also, if we do get an eruption, this is what it is likely to be like:

Obsidian Cliff. - result of a lava flow 180,000 years ago. (USGS photograph by Robert Christiansen.)

There have been no lava flow eruptions for 70,000 years there, but these are likely to happen again in the future. (While with supervolcano eruptions they don’t know if it will have another one).

The USGS say about them:

“Today, most of the landforms within the Yellowstone Caldera reflect the shapes of these young lava flows. Cliffs surrounding the Upper Geyser Basin near Old Faithful Geyser are the cooled steep flow fronts of once-slow-moving rhyolite lavas. Some narrow ridges and valleys on the Canyon-Norris road are corrugations on the surface of a 110,000-year-old rhyolite flow. These roughly concentric ridges formed as the thick, pasty lava slowly oozed northeastward, wrinkling its surface. Within the caldera, rivers and streams commonly occupy the gaps between individual lava flows, and springs emerge at the edges of flows.

“Any renewed volcanic activity at Yellowstone would most likely take the form of such mainly nonexplosive lava eruptions. An eruption of lava could cause widespread havoc in the park, including fires and the loss of roads and facilities, but more distant areas would probably remain largely unaffected.”

Steam Explosions, Quakes, and Volcanic Eruptions-What’s in Yellowstone’s Future?

ONGOING ACTIVITY

You do get hydrothermal explosions - a result of snowmelt seeping into the hot rocks. These are local in their effect and have happened in recent times. Most recent ones even in this century. The USGS say:

“The largest hydrothermal-explosion crater documented in the world is along the north edge of Yellowstone Lake in an embayment known as Mary Bay. This 1.5-mile (2.6 km)-diameter crater formed about 13,800 years ago and may have had several separate explosions in a short time interval. What specifically triggered these very large events is not firmly established, but earthquakes or a pressure release caused by melting glaciers or rapid changes in lake level may have been a significant factor.”

“Although large hydrothermal explosions are a feature of Yellowstone’s recent geologic history, most explosions in historical times have been relatively small and have left craters at most a few yards across. For example, in early 2003, a long linear fissure appeared on a hillside above Nymph Lake, north of Norris Geyser Basin, venting steam and throwing bits of rock onto the surrounding hillside. Although most hydrothermal explosions in the park are small, their remains can be noticed by observant visitors and attest to the nearly continuous geologic activity at Yellowstone.”

Steam Explosions, Quakes, and Volcanic Eruptions-What’s in Yellowstone’s Future?

And - it is being intensively studied and scientists do of course notice changes in the magma chamber. That is normal and is the same for similar volcanoes worldwide.

MAGMA CHAMBER CHANGES ARE NORMAL AND DON’T MEAN IT WILL ERUPT

When they report some minor change in the chambers - THIS DOES NOT MEAN YELLOWSTONE IS GOING TO ERUPT. It is normal for volcano magma chambers to change. But often these observations are misreported as an indication that it is about to erupt and amateur doomsday prophets often seize on them and claim that every small change they observe is a sign that it is about to erupt. Don’t let them deceive you in this way. This is nonsense.

NASA DO NOT HAVE A RISKY PLAN TO DRILL INTO YELLOWSTONE FROM THE TOP

See: No - NASA do not have a risky plan to drill into Yellowstone potentially triggering an eruption

SUMMARY

Once again

  • No sign of it erupting
  • Chance per century of any supervolcano anywhere in the world is tiny
  • Yellowstone may have finished its supervolcano phase
  • Most likely eruption is a lava flow or similar.
  • It is constantly active with very tiny “eruptions”
  • A supervolcano can be survived and planned for
  • We have lots of warning time to prepare and so make it easier for us if it ever happens
  • Very unlikely to happen anywhere in the world this century. Likely to be tens of thousands through to millions of years in the future.

If you got scared by one of these stories:

JOURNALISTS OFTEN EXAGGERATE - EVEN GOOD ONES (BY A BIT)

SENSATIONALIST JOURNALISTS ALSO JUST MAKE STUFF UP

JOURNALISTS CAN ALSO SOMETIMES MAKE MISTAKES

They haven’t studied the research they report. They often work from interviews more than the original papers.

So what can you do if you want to find out about accurate science? Well there are some excellent science sites that don't exaggerate. But they don't feature high in Google News which favours the sensationalist press above all. For some reason the likes of the Daily Express who don't have science reporters as normally understood, who often get things wrong and often just make things up to titillate their readers, go right to the top of Google News.

The likes of Phys.org, say, Sky and Telescope etc barely get a look in.

SOME GOOD SITES THAT DON’T USE EXAGGERATION

For astronomy,

For astrobiology

For general science

and things like the news sites of universities, e.g. UCL, Boston Scientific, etc. If it is a story by UCL researchers then go back to the press release at UCL and you’ll get the most sober version of the story probably, and same for others.

These next are reputable enough but can be just a bit colourful in their treatment - not inaccurate but if you are susceptible to getting nervous about major disasters, maybe not the best sources. But sometimes excellent, depends on the story.

  • New Scientist - it is respectable and accurate enough - but they often run stories about cutting edge science. The main issue really is that these are ideas that are quite likely to be overturned in the near future, scientist readers want to keep up to date with such things. It’s good but you need to understand that it is cutting edge stuff and understand how science works, that such things can get overturned easily. And a bit “Gee Whiz” about ideas for inventions etc that may or may not come to pass.
  • National Geographic Magazine - big picture - sometimes a little dramatized

SNOPES FOR DEBUNKING

I've used them a fair bit and they seem reasonably reliable to me for the subjects I use them for. Often they have a well written article on a topic that debunks fake news better than anyone else.

There was a fake news email circulated about Snopes.com ironically. See Snopes.com - FactCheck.org

So you sometimes come across people influenced by that who say that it is a biased and fake news site itself. However that is itself fake news / false rumours. FactCheck.org investigated those claims about Snopes.com and found them to be false.

This is wikipedia's article on Snopes.com

Snopes.com - Wikipedia

Of course other sites like Factcheck also could have biases but you can also just check the Snopes stories for yourself. I've checked them for some time on numerous stories and not found any serious errors there on the ones I checked.

When you come across people saying a site or author is biased remember those people themselves may be biased or have an agenda. That itself can sometimes be fake news.

If something's important you need to check their sources in turn as with any secondary source, but they are good.


See also List of the articles in my Debunking Doomsday blog to date