Some Yellowstone myths, courtesy of CNN
    By Gareth Fabbro | January 27th 2011 06:14 PM | 15 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Gareth

    For those of you who are not geologists, a tuff is a volcanic rock, made up of solidified ash. Hence the pun as my blog title. Actually, my research...

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    Usually, I don't think it is worth pointing out everything the media gets wrong.  I don't think it is particularly constructive concentrating on what's wrong, better to simply try and write well about science myself.  However, there occasionally appears such an impressive collection of scientific myths that something really needs to be said about them.  This video from CNN is one of them.

    The background to the video is that a study found that the ground is swelling in Yellowstone, a fact the authors of the study attributed to fresh magma intrusion at depth.  While this does increase the chances of an eruption at some point in the future, it is nothing to panic about.  Not that that would stop the media.

    What first drew my attention to this particular video was who CNN thought it was most appropriate to ask about the implications: the physicist Michio Kaku.  Physicists do have a lot to say about volcanoes, from fluid dynamics during eruption to techniques such as InSAR and seimics used to monitor them.  Unfortunately, Kaku's field of expertise (string theory) has very little relevance to volcanology.

    So to the video.  I will highlight each incorrect claim (of both Kaku and the CNN host, Kiran Chetry) in bold, and then briefly explain why it is wrong.

    The last time this happened was 640,000 years ago.
    The last caldera forming eruption was 640,000 years ago.  The last known eruption was 70,000 years ago, and far more gentle.  Between 150,000 and 70,000 years ago Yellowstone was highly active, although it formed mostly lava domes and flows.  Inflationary events like this recent one are much more common, although this is the largest one in the [brief] instrumental record.

    We are due an eruption.
    This assertion seems to be based solely on the fact that past caldera collapses have occurred roughly every 600,000 years, and it has been 600,000 years since the last one.  Unfortunately, volcanoes don't work like that.  Over the several million years Yellowstone has been active, much will have changed beneath the surface.  The processes that led to the last caldera collapse may be working slower this time around.  While the last three caldera collapses have been happened quite close to 600,000 years apart, other calderas around the world are not as regular.

    There then follows a lot of rather sentimental scaremongering.  Yes a caldera collapse would be bad, especially for the United States.  However, it is the least likely possibility for the next eruption.  Kaku then gets thousands and millions mixed up, although for this I will give him the benefit of the doubt.  I often say one thing, when in my head I meant something else.  However, he continues to say we are due another big eruption.  We are not.  Volcanoes do not erupt on a schedule.

    The 600,000 year cycle is making 'us' very nervous.
    It is not making me nervous.

    We need to watch the rise of the sea level very carefully.
    If I was being generous, I would assume he meant the rise of the ground level.  Sea level has nothing to do with anything.

    Poisonous gases reaching 500 miles.
    Poisonous gasses are one of the least travelled volcanic hazards.  While they would pose a danger close by, they quickly become too dilute to cause harm.  The biggest threat at this distance is volcanic ash, blown by the wind.  Based on past eruptions at Yellowstone, the thickness of ash at 500 miles could be thick enough to damage plants.  However, this is only in the worst case scenario.  The next eruption at Yellowstone is unlikely to cause that much damage, at least outside of the local area.

    It is 'black magic' trying to predict volcanic eruptions.
    This bit actually makes me a little angry.  Here is one scientist, pretending to be an expert in a discipline he quite clearly isn't, who then proceeds to write off the work of an entire field in his ignorance.  While volcano forecasting is still pretty imprecise, the last few decades have seen great leaps in the science.  Where a volcano is properly wired up, there is plenty that we can say about the likelihood of an eruption.  For example, volcanologists watched Eyjafjallajörkull awaken for over a decade before it finally blew.  So, and apologies to any theoretical physicists here, I return the insult: String theory is not real science (it can't make any predictions about the real world).

    A 'supervolcano' like Yellowstone was responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs.
    I was under the impression that we had pretty much settled on the asteroid impact for the K/T extinction, although I admit to my lack of expertise in this area.  However, the type of volcanism that has been accused of causing the K/T (along with the Permian-Triassic 250 million years ago) was definitely not a Yellowstone style event.  Flood basalts, over a period of thousands of years, may have altered the climate enough to kill off large numbers of species.  It was not a one-off 'super-eruption'.  The last three Yellowstone caldera collapses did not cause mass extinctions.

    You don't get much warning.
    See my earlier reply to 'It's black magic'.  Also, it is worth pointing out that there is good archaeological evidence to suggest that when Santorini (another caldera) had its last big eruption, the people there had enough warning to evacuate.  That was before all our fancy high-tech instruments.

    We're still clueless.
    No, you're clueless.  Those of us who have studied volcanoes for more than 10 minutes before going on air are far less ignorant.

    So, rant almost over.  I saved the last of my ire for CNN.  It was CNN, after all, that decided to interview Kaku as an 'expert'.  I think the decision reveals a lot about the attitude of the media towards science.  'Science' is all one subject, so any scientist will do as an expert, whatever their true field of expertise.  The more famous the better.  Would they have interviewed a rugby player as an expert on soccer?  I don't like pointing out other peoples mistakes, because I know I make enough of my own.  When your 'expert' displays such incredible ignorance on my subject, however, I am sometimes willing to make an exception.


    Nice write up. While Dr. Kaku is highly respected in his field, he is not infallible.

    This is not his field.

    And even in his field, I think "highly respected" is a slight exaggeration.

    Yes, of course you are right. I was having a rare polite and diplomatic moment. ;)

    If you read Prof. Kaku's tweet stream at his "I'm above peer review" philosophy becomes quickly apparent.

    - Discovery (Sep 22, 2010): EARTH'S PULSE FELT AT HOT SPOTS... Enigmatic volcanic hot spots around the world might be pulsating together -- like a great planetary heartbeat... say researchers from Norway, Hawaii and Australia... I. Velikovsky, Worlds in Collision: Volcanoes activation and their eruption, 3600 years ago... PLANET X... Nat Geo (Nov 19, 2008): "MYSTERIOUS ASTROPHYSICAL OBJECT that's bombarding Earth with cosmic rays:

    Ah... I see Xpertman has arrived here to prevent public panic and vast mob scenes where hair would be yanked from naked scalps by the handful. Thank you Xpertman for saving us from thinking on our own!

    Oh... and thank for pointing out that that other, false superhero, Mediaman, was attempting to create fear in the heart of our fragile society! Our children will sleep safer tonight for your xpert rant!

    (No wonder 'mainstream' anything has become such a dirty word lately.)

    The fact that Kaku actually went through with this implies something about his character, or lack thereof.

    Seriously, does anyone else think he's a quack? Prestige and respect? What kind of respect does he have for those in other fields if he does things like this?

    Funny how it mirrors his research. All sensation and little else. I suggest people who regard him so highly to look at the parallels between media and he.

    Thank you for a VERY informative article.
    I'll be sending this link out as Doom-sayers appear on Facebook.


    If the Yellowstone nature Park is erupt,which is a good thing for earth,because the globe warming.i think earth is trying to self cooling down.
    this is bad/good things for humans

    Oliver Knevitt
    Great article, Gareth.

    You're right; it's unbelievable behaviour on Michio Kaku's part. He's exploiting this geological wonder purely for shameless self-promotion of his book - which is pathetic, on his part. The thing that makes me most angry is the fact that CNN clearly rang him up, having his number as a "scientist on the PR run", and then he had the temerity to think: "Hmmm... its only geology, how difficult can it be", because he saw a documentary on it (and who hasn't?). Incredibly disrespectful, when there are thousands of people who know about it, and genuinely want to fascinate people about it, rather than just to have their ugly mug plastered all over the TV.

    This is all about a pathological need for the media to have an expert opinion. But here is someone who does the expert role very well, and is just as qualified as anyone to give an opinion on... just about anything:
    Good article! A few years ago, an actor pretended to be a nuclear expert was interviewed on Radio Canada (public radio and TV). Because the interviewer and production crew did not run a background check, they gave air time to a complete fake, who periodically pulls off these stunts to remind the public that they should be critical and vigilant when it comes to media reports. Will CNN come back and correct its blunder about Yellowstone?
    Thanks for the heads up Tuff Guy. I live somewhat close to Yellowstone … Best time to visit is the winter when the vapors are so pronounced. South entrance unfortunately is closed during the 7 month winter … will try to visit in May (still plenty of snow) … Does thermal activity follow any rhythms a vacation planner might use …. or is that ‘black magic’?
    Check out the History channels (mega disasters) yellowstone eruption. It has some interesting theory's.

    I think you need to do a bit more research on the topic before you go bashing someone else. Your so called thoeries on what would happen diring the eruption are extremely flawed. I think the facts that are present Michio Kaku are fairly accurate, even mild estimates. Have you taken magna composition into account, large composition of moulten volitile gases. While 500miles total devastation there is a larger ring of devastation as the blast and ash clouds spread. An eruption of Yellowstone is closer than you may think, "At 45 degrees the skies will burn, immediately huge flames will leap up", Where is Yellowstone at? 44.5degrees?

    "At 45 degrees the skies will burn, immediately huge flames will leap up"
    It took me a while to realise that you were quoting Nostradamus.  The fact that you choose some vaguely written, 500 year old poetry as evidence tells me all I need to know about your research.  Still, having already written a rational reply to your post I will leave it here for others, even if I am unlikely to be able to convince you that the world is not about to end.


    I have taken magma composition and dissolved volatile content into account, obviously as they are the biggest control on the eruption style of volcanoes.  My research on this topic includes currently doing a PhD on a similar volcano (Santorini).

    While Yellowstone is able to produce eruptions close to what Kaku describes,  it is far from the most likely type of eruption.  Look at other calderas, like Santorini, like Krakatoa, like Crater Lake.  They have very similar magma composition and dissolved volatile contents.  Look at past eruptions at Yellowstone.  The vast majority of them are not catastrophic, and only affect the local area.  More likely than not, this is what the next eruption of Yellowstone will be like.

    The latitude of a volcano has no influence on how it will erupt.  It does control which hemisphere it will effect; a volcano near the equator can spread ash and sulphates (volcanic aerosols that cool the planet) to both hemispheres, while the products at higher latitudes are trapped in their own hemisphere.