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Miscalculated

A spectrogram showing the rate (frequency) of ground motion based on borehole strainmeter data from near Lake Junction in Yellowstone National Park. These data have been misinterpreted by some as showing gas emissions and magma with depth — a totally incorrect assessment. In this case, labels that begin with "CH" indicate "channel" numbers — CH3 is "channel 3" and not a chemical formula indicating bonded carbon and hydrogen. 

Yellowstone Caldera Chronicles is a weekly column written by scientists and collaborators of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory. This week's contribution is from Michael Poland, geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey and scientist-in-charge of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory, and Wendy Stovall, geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and deputy scientist-in-charge of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory.

Have you ever played a game of telephone? One person says something to their neighbor, and the message is passed from person to person? The lesson is that by the time it gets to the last person, the message has often changed significantly — sometimes to the point where the original meaning has been lost.

Yellowstone Volcano Observatory scientists sometimes feel like they are engaged in a perpetual game of telephone. Correct information becomes incorrect over time as it is passed from person to person, and on occasion misinformation is passed along with the deliberate intent to deceive people.

Take, for example, last week's Yellowstone Caldera Chronicles article, which described the efforts of engineers to diagnose and repair damaged monitoring stations at Yellowstone. The original article, which can be found here, describes a lightning strike that took out a monitoring station and communications relay. The damage was repaired, and only a few sites out of the dozens of monitoring stations were ever affected (none of which were in the most active area of Yellowstone, and all of which are operational now).

Aspects of the article were quickly grabbed by a tabloid website, and within hours they had produced their own article that exaggerated and misconstrued the text in the original and implied Yellowstone was unmonitored. That story didn't even correctly copy and paste the original text. As an example, the word "borehole" in the original was misspelled as "boreal" in the tabloid version. The exact same misspelling was perpetuated in social-media reports and by sources that repeatedly conduct misinformation campaigns about Yellowstone. They either did not know, or ignored, the fact that YVO was the original source of the article, and that the tabloid changed the article's meaning to something ominous.

The net result? Within a day of the posting of the Yellowstone Caldera Chronicles article, YVO scientists began receiving emails and notes from concerned citizens who thought we had lost the ability to monitor volcanic activity in Yellowstone National Park. This type of misinformation causes unnecessary and unfounded anxiety.

Unfortunately, this is a common occurrence when it comes to Yellowstone, and it need not always involve tabloids and social media. Last year a study by Arizona State University researchers suggested that there might have been decades of heating of Yellowstone's magmatic system (possibly due to the injection of lots of new magma) prior to the last big explosion 631,000 years ago. It had nothing to do with what was happening at Yellowstone now, or might happen in the future. But within 24 hours of this science story being covered accurately by the New York Times, other mainstream media outlets were reporting that Yellowstone would erupt within a decade. The original researchers tried to combat this misinformation using social media, but the rumor remains to this day.

And then of course there is the story of NASA wanting to drill into Yellowstone. In reality, this idea originated as a simple calculation done by a few scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (managed by the California Institute of Technology and funded by NASA). There has never been a "plan" to drill into Yellowstone (it's not feasible for a lot of reasons), but that rumor also persists. It even resurfaced a few weeks ago for unknown reasons, sparking a new round of questions and rehashed misinformation.

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On top of this are the frequent incorrect reports of Yellowstone activity that are common on the internet. Occasionally, some Yellowstone data (all freely available online) are horribly misconstrued. For example, borehole strain measurements, which indicate changes in the shape of the crust, have been passed off as volcanic gas data. In another case, satellite imagery showing deformation of Yellowstone in the 1990s has been attributed to the current year.

In this day and age, it can be hard to identify reputable sources of information — especially when even traditionally trusted media sources can so easily get important elements of a story wrong (that pesky game of telephone). So if you ever have a question about Yellowstone's volcanic activity or history, we encourage you to contact us at yvowebteam@usgs.gov. We do our best to respond to all inquiries, whether from individuals or the media, and we are happy to answer questions or direct you to whatever information you might be looking for.

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