The Yellowstone Problem

As you have surely heard, the Yellowstone Caldera … the place where Old Faithful and the Geyser Basin reside … has been undergoing increased “activity” including some earthquakes and a rising up of the land. Is this a big problem? Should the evacuate? Should those of us living only a few states away start wearing earplugs?


The paper reporting this, in the current issue of Science, concludes:

The caldera-wide accelerated uplift reported here is interpreted as magmatic recharge of the Yellowstone magma body. Although the geodetic observations and models do not imply an impending volcanic eruption or hydrothermal explosion, they are important evidence of ongoing processes of a large caldera that was produced by a super volcano eruption.

A little vague. I’m pretty sure, from my reading of this paper, that there is not a major imminent danger. But it is interesting to contemplate the magnitude of these things.

This volcano, the volcano we affectionately know as “Yellowstone National Park” (the caldera takes up something like a third of the park area, and is entirely enclosed within it) last erupted in a big way about 600,000 years ago. That was the third in a series of “giant eruptions.” Subsequently, there were several smaller volcanic eruptions, the most recent being about 70,000 years ago.

A caldera is a hole left behind when a very large and explosive volcano blows everything out more or less at once. As calderas go, Yellowstone is on the list of the largest known. Here is a rough outline of the Yellowstone Caldera very approximately superimposed over New York City:

i-fb1edbc830cdc7f968e24388a0a65d92-NYC_Caldera.jpg

Here is a little historical perspective, a list of exenmlar volcanic eruptions of this type (leaving a big caldera, ejecting lots of stuff).


Tambora, Indonesia

192 years ago, a mere 30 or 40 square km in area, ejected about 100 cubic km of stuff.

(About ten other similar sized eruptions have happened during the last 10,000 years, Tambora possibly being the largest.)

Toba, Sumatra

71,000 years ago, about 3,500 square km in area, ejected about 2800 cubic km.

Yellowstone

600,000 years ago about 4,000 square km in area, about 1,000 cubic km ejected.

La Garita, Colorado

28,000,000 years ago, about 2,600 square km in area, about 5,000 cubic km ejected (possibly the largest volume of any known volcano)

So, as you can see, the Yellowstone Volcano was a doozie. Comparatively speaking.

_______________
Source:

Chang, W., Smith, RB., Wicks, C. et al.. (2007). Accelerated uplift and magmatic intrusion of the yellowstone caldera, 2004 to 2006.. Science 318, 952-956.

Comments

  1. #1 Jeb, FCD
    November 10, 2007

    Maybe it will solve a global warming woes for a bit.

  2. #2 CalderaGal
    November 11, 2007

    I can see the west rim of the Yellowstone Caldera from the deck of my cabin, which is in the Island Park Caldera. I do not think either caldera will explode all at once. I think the magma will seep out slowly, and there will be a few minor eruptions. At least if the people who live here are co-evolving with the geology. That is how they approach their problems now, and have in the Euro-settler past. The natives come here for intense experiences – vision quests and to kill moose, preferring to live at the edge of where the molten lava finally quit flowing. In the days before rifles, they came to find obsidian for arrowheads in addition to vision seeking. Also the Crows came through on their way to wife- and horse-stealing campaigns against the Shoshone and other tribes, and vice versa. Now they do not steal to mix up the gene pool, they attend powwows and with luck, fall in love.

    The film, Supervolcano- fun to watch, but not an award winner. Folks here show it to unwanted guests. But if you love big explosions, and who doesn’t, it’s a fun watch. The link does have some good info.

    http://dsc.discovery.com/convergence/supervolcano/supervolcano.html

  3. #3 Martin Richard
    November 11, 2007

    “If the Yellowstone volcano goes off, we will all share the experience.”

    So said David Alt, I believe, in his “Roadside Geology of Montana.” Alas, I do not have copy handy to confirm this recollection. If he didn’t say it, he should have.

  4. #4 Who Cares
    November 11, 2007

    Stupid question but would it possible to remove the lid from this pressure cooker? Or would that be the same as trying to puncture a water balloon?

  5. #5 laptop battery
    August 28, 2008

    If the Yellowstone volcano goes off, we will all share the experience.

    So said David Alt, I believe, in his “Roadside Geology of Montana.” Alas, I do not have copy handy to confirm this recollection. If he didn’t say it, he should have.

  6. #6 SimonG
    January 2, 2009

    I’ve never visited Yellowstone. Perhaps I should make the effort while it’s still there. :-)

  7. #7 SimonG
    January 2, 2009

    Although if I’m patient, perhaps it will visit me.

  8. #8 Greg Laden
    January 2, 2009

    Yes, I was just thinking that in retrospect placing the Jewel of the national park system on a caldera was a little dumb.

  9. #9 Greg Laden
    January 2, 2009

    Who cares: Not really. We are ants walking around on a giant covered pot of boiling pasta.

  10. #10 Lelia Snodgrass
    January 2, 2009

    Hello, I live in Dillon, MT and I wanted to know if Yellowstone does blow would it be good to head south down by the ocean to stay warm for the volcanic winter. would it be warmer their. i think it would. but i want to know ahead of time, i am already starting to get ready, can food, lots of water, warm clothes, gas masks, and bunches of other things. i am 20 and still young and dont want to die i am going to live throw this and so are all my loved ones. i want to know and dont suger coat it, is yellowstone dangerous, tell me the true.

  11. #11 Pyre
    January 2, 2009

    Lelia: a seacoast may not be the safest place to be, following a major seismic event. Read about Tsunami.

    Is Yellowstone dangerous? This scientist says no:

    Dr. Jacob Lowenstern of the U.S. Geological Survey said Monday that the earthquake activity in Yellowstone most likely will continue for weeks, “and then will end without any other related activity.”

  12. #12 NIght Watch
    January 4, 2009

    Lelia, if you live in Dillion, Montana, you probably won’t survive, so don’t worry about it. The last big event only about 1800 people in the whole world survived.

    But you have the right idea about preparing–it is better to have a stockpile of food and not worry about your grammar and spelling. Good luck to you.

  13. #13 Lee
    January 16, 2009

    Hmm Lets see, Well, I have seen Mt St hellens erupt when I was a child.
    and Mt St hellens was pretty much ding the same thing that this is doing in its earlier stages. Iam very curiouse as to why the sceintists are using double talk. Saying the quakes are Normal then turning around and saying thattey are Unusual..This is a verry sensitive area we don’t know what changes can lead to a domino effect if you would care to call it tt befor the eruption takes place .. they are saying thatthere are no changes in Deformation but are not releasing data on that.

    andin one of the actual reports they concluded a paragrah saying that there has been no volcanic gass release —as of yet…wen they say that It appears that they are stll gathering data.. that park is Huge ..wat I thnk they need to do is park a satlight over tatting for the next month or so and take some shots using heat image sensors as well… see if there are any changes in gorund temp prature and see if any new hot spots are cming to be..

  14. #14 judy yay!
    February 5, 2009

    hmmm… i don’t really kno.
    but if it does happen well let it be.
    we can’t change it, just be prepared. and enjoy yellowstone if it will blow so at least u’ll have the chance. awesomest place ever! ;)

  15. #15 Wiesshund
    August 17, 2010

    To answer some peoples questions.
    Can the yellowstone cauldera have another cataclysmic eruption?

    Yes, at some point it probably will, it is far from dormant.
    Part of it’s attraction is that it is very much active.
    Eventualy, when the pressures and heat build up enough.

    When will it do this?

    I dont think anyone knows exactly.
    In geologic terms an error of +/- 500 years is a blink of an eye.
    And not everything in the earth works by an atomic clock.
    Though old faithful may wear a timex, the magma pit under it most likely isnt quite that precise.

    No human has ever recorded the events of a super volcanoe, so there isnt any first hand knowledge to go by.
    If people are around when it occurs again, they may or may not realize what is going on.
    It may not even give the kind of warning signs we are looking for exactly.

    But even if the scientists felt very strongly that it was about to blow, i dont think they would tell people anything simply because it would be pointless.
    It would be like looking into space and finding a moon sized asteroid on an absolute collision path with the earth.

    You can’t run from it, you can’t stop it.
    There is no point in making everyone else worry about it.
    That serves no purpose, and is cruel if nothing else.

    To the person collecting gaskmasks and canned food.
    Gas masks are of no use, if i put you in a box of hydrogen and sulfur gas, and give you a gas mask, what are you going to breath?
    They dont create oxygen.

    There isn’t any place to go running to, nor doubtfuly the time to run to begin with.
    The last time the yellowstone cauldera errupted, it was global.
    It is not like Mt St Helens, it is unimaginably much much bigger
    If your in montana, you wont ever know it even happened.
    I’m sure you can read up on the approximate sequence of events before, during, and after a super erruption of that magnitude

    Things like this are beyond human beings worrying about.
    Something will kill the planet at some time, and we can not do anything at all to prevent it even though we have aquired the need to control every occurence in the universe.

    Someday the sun will super nova, and incinerate everything.
    Someday a supercauldera will errupt causing a variety of things to happen.
    Someday a large body from space will impact the earth again.

    The only thing worth worrying about is that we dont kill the planet ourselves before then, and that you live your life and handle the way you treat others as if each day was the only day you had to live.

  16. #16 Darrell
    December 24, 2010

    Having a sense of the vastness of the Caldera, this makes NYC look huge!

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