Although we live in an age where a wealth of information is always at our fingertips, misinformation also beckons from every corner of the internet— including recent posts about volcanoes in Yellowstone National Park.
Geologists had to clamp down on a hoax over the Christmas holiday when they said someone “claiming to be from Wyoming” shared a series of social media posts that claimed the area was being evacuated because Yellowstone’s volcanoes were “acting up.”
The claims were completely bogus, U.S. Geological Survey experts said in a column.
What’s true is that the ground at Yellowstone can swell up due to magma, water, gas or other things gathering beneath the surface and then deflates back down, the Associated Press reported.
“This idea of volcanic uplift in Yellowstone is complete hogwash,” Michael Poland, scientist-in-charge at the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory, told the AP. He added that “Yellowstone has actually experienced a trend of subsidence, or deflation, since 2015,” the outlet reported.
Still, the trick rehashed fears about Yellowstone’s supervolcano erupting and stirred people into a frenzy “all around the world,” officials said. Panicked people called, emailed and sent questions via social media to law enforcement, the National Park Service and the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory.
Poland, a geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey, compared the hysteria to that of the broadcast of Orson Welles’ live radio adaptation of War of the Worlds in 1938.
“The incident is famous for supposedly having incited a panic that the events being described were really happening,” he wrote in the Yellowstone Caldera Chronicles, a weekly column by experts of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory. “Some people apparently thought that Martians were invading Earth!”
The social media hoax had convinced people around the world that Yellowstone was on the brink of catastrophe. The videos generated enough public craze that a Wyoming sheriff’s office had to address the rumor with a public service announcement, Poland said.
“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,” Poland wrote.
Poland urged the public to carefully and thoroughly verify information in the future, starting with something as simple as seeking out public statements from official agencies.
It’s critically important to know where to check for publicly available data, he said.
“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,” he wrote.
Where to find verified information
Some good places to check for publicly available geological data, according to the column, are:
“If activity at Yellowstone were to change significantly and present hazards, new statements would be issued containing facts and analysis by YVO experts,” Poland said.
He also encouraged emailing firstname.lastname@example.org with questions, as he said many people did on Dec. 25 and 26.
“Yellowstone’s status as a large, charismatic, and active volcano system that has experienced very large explosive eruptions in the past provides fertile ground for misinformation that can create undue worry,” he said. “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…” Poland quipped.