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Seismograph error leaves some shaken over Yellowstone volcano

By Emily Valla
Published On: Feb 05 2014 07:26:19 PM CST

Seismograph error causes concern about Yellowstone Volcano

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. -

It doesn't take much for something to go viral. This week, some websites offered a seismograph reading from Yellowstone National Park as proof that the supervolcano was about to erupt.

The image and story was initially posted by Turner Radio Network, which has no connection to Turner Broadcasting System, and then went viral via PreppersWorldUSA. As it picked up steam on social media, many viewers asked Local News 8 to clarify.

Yellowstone National Park geologist Henry Heasler said there is nothing to worry about. Brigham Young University Idaho geology professor Robert Clayton echoed that, saying simply, "There's an electronic problem with the seismometer."

The seismograph reading is stagnant, then rapidly picks up to what appears to be an extreme level. Both of those factors indicate the seismometer electronically malfunctioned. Clayton said that on a normal reading in Yellowstone, there should be a variety of bumps and spikes, even if they don't indicate an earthquake. Then, if there is an earthquake, the reading would appear different. Clayton said there would be an initial spike that gradually diminishes over time, along with aftershocks. The seismogram causing the panic is comparable to when an old television set goes out: static noise.

The seismometers are extremely sensitive. Extreme weather like wind and hail or even animals walking by can cause spikes in readings or can cause a malfunction altogether.

'I had a moose running around our seismometer. You could see every one of its hoofprints looked like little earthquakes," said Clayton.

Heasler and Clayton both said they know this weekend's reading was an error because no other seismograph indicated any similar activity in the park.

"Even a magnitude 2 earthquake, which you may not even feel, would be measured by most seismometers in Yellowstone," said Clayton.

He also referred to a reading from 2008, when the 8.1 magnitude earthquake occurred in Somoa. That was picked up by seismometers in Yellowstone. Earthquakes that large show on most around the world.

Heasler said that when there is a spike in activity, scientists also consider what people have actually witnessed in the park.

"We would also be looking at good old human knowledge and senses that have felt the earthquakes," Heasler said.

The original posting included a line saying the event was so intense, the seismogram printer ran out of ink. That isn't possible.

"It's not a credible source of information. They look at this seismogram and they say, 'Look it's so big they are running out of ink!' This isn't ink. This is a computer," said Clayton.

No one knows if or when Yellowstone could erupt next. However, most of the time there are indicators of an impending eruption. Clayton said geologists look for several factors to occur at once, but just seeing one doesn't necessarily indicate anything. There are regularly many small earthquakes in Yellowstone. Often, the earthquakes have a magnitude of less than 3 and are hardly even felt, though geologists do track them. Even seeing swarms is common, and by itself, it isn't cause for panic.

"People should be concerned when the experts are concerned," said Clayton.

Heasler said, "I live here (in Yellowstone). I don't have a death wish, and I see no reason to be leaving."

As of Wednesday, the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory listed the alert level as normal. For reliable earthquake activity, visit The University of Utah's website http://www.seis.utah.edu/ or the United States Geological Services http://earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/

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