The story arrived earlier this month in Facebook updates, Twitter feeds and urgent ALL CAPS emails from your kooky uncle. Yellowstone was going to blow. A recent 4.8-magnitude earthquake provided the first signal. Wildlife could sense the trouble, and they were fleeing in droves. Look, there was even video evidence of bison getting the hell out of Dodge. And, by the way, we're all about to die in a cloud of volcanic ash and molten rock.
As Yellowstone National Park officials, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Associated Press made clear since the story—and bison "stampede" video—went viral, the whole thing was a wild fabrication cooked up by the same conspiracy theorists who always seem to sucker your kooky uncle. A swarm of earthquakes did occur, but the USGS assures the activity is "not unusual for Yellowstone." The video of bison running for their lives turns out to pre-date the earthquakes and, worth noting, they are actually running into the park.
Nevertheless, the Internet being as it is, the USGS published an FAQ to respond to this "flurry of news, real and imagined," and Yellowstone Public Affairs Chief Al Nash posted a YouTube video titled "Rumor Control" to set the record straight. "We've seen no signs to suggest that Yellowstone's volcano is about to erupt," he says. No doubt, this will do nothing to calm your kooky uncle's fears, but the science appears to be conclusive. We're not going to die—at least not right away—from the world's largest volcano.
But the mildly amusing hysteria surrounding Yellowstone did turn us on to another eye-opening geothermal development at the park. Some conspiracy theorists attached the earthquake news to a report published in February in the journal Nature that revealed vast amounts of helium were escaping from Yellowstone. How much? Oh, you know, about 60 tons a year—hundreds, maybe thousands of times more than initially anticipated, according to researchers. Enough, in fact, to fill one Goodyear blimp every week.
While this sounds infinitely more alarming than a misrepresented bison video, alas, the helium research has "no implications about volcanic hazards," according to the USGS. Plus, as one researcher explained to the Los Angeles Times, this "sudden" release of gas began roughly 2 million years ago—a really long time by most measures, but a drop in the bucket when it comes to a geologic study. These findings help to show that Yellowstone remains a natural wonder for researchers—not to mention tourists—even if the details prove problematic for those wearing tinfoil hats.