Yellowstone Supervolcano Eruption Fears Feed Our Apocalypse Obsession, and Twitter Stokes the Flames

Colorful bacteria at Yellowstone National Park springs, which is (still) not going to destroy the world. Barcroft Media/Getty

Rumors of a fiery, volcanic apocalypse were greatly exaggerated. An article in The New York Times about a piece of geology research spun out into inaccurate stories suggesting that a supervolcano under Yellowstone was set to erupt, spewing a sea of lava and smothering the skies with ash.

In a perfect storm of miscommunication, several news outlets misrepresented original reporting on a piece of research from Arizona State University. Feeding a hunger for apocalypse stories, the misinformation spread and was amplified by Twitter, which highlighted one of the inaccurate stories on its news page.

An article in USA Today originally ran with the headline, "Yellowstone supervolcano may blow sooner than thought — and could wipe out life on the planet," though it has since been switched, with several corrections, to "Scientists seek clues to what triggered past Yellowstone 'supervolcano' eruptions."

Christy Till, the researcher whose group produced this research, told Snopes the reports were sensationalized. Shannon Hall, who wrote the original Times piece, pointed out that the coverage Twitter highlighted was inaccurate.

Dear @Twitter, this is inaccurate. Maybe you should reconsider your algorithm that places "top news" at the beginning of the page.

— Shannon Hall (@ShannonWHall) October 12, 2017

This all raises the question: how did this story spin out of control?

"I think there's a tendency to associate Yellowstone with death and destruction," Till tells Newsweek. She also pointed out that Yellowstone has actually erupted over 23 times in recent history since its last "supereruption." Those smaller eruptions have involved small flows of lava that don't completely cover the park's surface.

Till says that Yellowstone has long held an ominous place in the popular imagination. In fact, it's something she worried about when Hall approached her to write a story about this research. But, Till says, she was confident that in working with Hall, the story would be seen for what it was. The two made sure to include "careful language that the volcano was not due to erupt any time soon," she said.

"It seems that no matter the best of [Hall's] intentions or my intentions, the word 'Yellowstone' seems to bring out this misrepresentation," she says.

Hall wrote to Newsweek that while some headlines were particularly sensationalized, several bits of cherry-picked information in other articles didn't help. According to Hall, "Volcanic eruptions are not like earthquakes," and are not "due" to recur at any given time. She adds that "the research did not analyze the likelihood that another supereruption at Yellowstone would occur. Period. It's also extremely unlikely that such an eruption will wipe out life on this planet."

"Christy and I were both extremely vigilant on Twitter, and I actually think that paid off," Hall said. When she first saw the inaccurate story making its way around the web, Hall began to respond. Till joined in, the two were quickly contacted by an editor at USA Today, and corrections were made (no other outlets who ran inaccurate stories have contacted Till).

"Although it's quite easy to feel powerless in a world where incorrect headlines spread like wildfire," Hall wrote, "perhaps we can slow the craze."