Yellowstone Supervolcano

People worry about the wrong things.  Now, I’m not talking about things like losing the elasticity in your skin, getting bunions on your feet, falling asleep in your recliner at 8:00 p.m. while watching reruns of Barnaby Jones, starting all conversations with “when I was a kid. . .”, and eating dinner at 4:30 p.m.  These things are legitimate worries because if these things are happening to you, well then, you’re old.

When I say people worry about the wrong things, I’m talking about people worrying about the small stuff.  Quit  it!  There’s big stuff to worry about.

All of you need to start worrying about what needs to be worried about.  Volcanoes.  This recent article reminded me of the importance of volcano worry: www.usnews.com/blogs/capital-commerce/2008/12/30/yellowstone-earthquakes-under-supervolcano-caldera.html

Warning:  This post is a little frightening.  But I can’t write about only happy things like paper towels on the “Interesting” page.  Sometimes I need to face up to the fact that life can be like The Exorcist.  One day  you’re happy, you’re minding your own business, and you’re saving up a nice little nest egg, and the next day, you are possessed, your head is spinning completely around, and you have a crazed Linda Blair look on your face.

I’ve previously mentioned how much I like the book:  “A Short History of Almost Everything” by Bill Bryson.  The following information is based on this book.

I got to tell you, this book is scary.  Yep, I now know that every time I drive to Wyoming,  I’m taking my life into my own hands.  There’s danger in them thar Wyoming hills.  Danger more frightening than an out-of-control buffalo.  Danger more frightening than an out-of-control cowboy.  Danger more frightening than an out-of-control wind gust.

When we think of volcanoes, and let’s face it, we think of volcanoes a lot don’t we?  Anyway, we tend to think of the classic cone-shaped volcanoes (the type of volcano that you spend 8 hours making a replica of for your son’s 4th grade science project and then your son says, “But why doesn’t it explode?”).   But there’s a second type of volcano that is so explosive that it bursts open in a single mighty rupture leaving behind a vast subsided pit.

Guess what?  Yellowstone national park is  sitting on a huge subsided volcano pit 40 miles across.  Hundreds of thousands of years ago, Yellowstone exploded with a mighty bang. The ash that fell from this eruption covered all or parts of 19 western states.  Put another way, this mighty eruption was 1000 times greater than that of Mount St. Helens.

When scientists first figured out that Yellowstone was a supervolcano, they thought, “Ho hum, so it once was a really big volcano with really big blasts. Big deal.”

But then, in 1973, water in Yellowstone Lake began to run over the banks at the lake’s southern end, flooding a meadow, while at the opposite end of the lake the water mysteriously flowed away.  A group of geologists were quickly called in to check out the situation.  They discovered that a large area of the center of the park had developed an ominous bulge.  (Not a “bulge” but an  “ominous bulge.”)  By 1984, the whole park was more than three feet higher than it had been in 1924, when the park was last surveyed.  In 1985, the park subsided by eight inches.  Now it is swelling again. (Cue the scary Exorcist music.)

The geologists are no longer thinking, “Ho hum.”  They are now thinking, “Holy Batman. Yellowstone isn’t the site of an ancient supervolcano like our clueless predecessors thought.  It’s actually the site of an active supervolcano.  Yellowstone is sitting on a restless magma chamber.” (Restless magma chamber: geologist lingo for hot lava bubbling under the earth waiting for the right opportunity to unexpectedly burst forth into the atmosphere with a mighty roar.)

At this same time, the geologists were able to figure out the cycle of Yellowstone’s volcanic eruptions.  On average, Yellowstone erupts with a mighty blow every 600,000 years.

Okay, here’s the scary part. The last one was 630,000 years ago. Yellowstone is PAST DUE. (Cue more scary  Exorcist music, only louder this time.)

You’re probably thinking, “Okay, so Yellowstone might explode.  But surely we will know ahead of time when it’s going to blow.”

‘Fraid not. All we know is that Yellowstone is set to blow either today, tomorrow, or sometime in the next ten million years. I’d like to be more specific than this, but I can’t.  (You know science: a lot of precise things plus a few wild guesses thrown in for good measure.)

Maybe in the next few years volcanologists will quit their guessing and get a tad bit more scientific.  But I got to tell you volcanologists are notorious for not seeing the writing on the wall (I guess they’d rather guess).

For example, in 1980, volcanologists misread St. Helens and as such 57 people were killed.  In 1991, 43 scientists and journalists got caught in an outpouring of superheated ash, gases, and molten rock at Mount Unzen in Japan when another volcano was misread.  In 1993, 16 scientists descended into the Galeras volcano in Columbia.  The volcano erupted killing six of the scientists and three tourists who had followed them.

But just like The Exorcist had a happy ending (Didn’t it?  I was always too scared to watch it. So I’m just guessing it ended happily every after.), the Yellowstone Volcano story has a happy ending.

Bryson writes that according to Paul Doss, Yellowstone geologist, “But the thing is most of the time bad things don’t happen.  Rocks don’t fall.  Earthquakes don’t occur.  New vents [caused by hydrothermal explosions under the earth’s surface] don’t suddenly open up.  For all the instability [at Yellowstone], it’s mostly remarkably and amazingly tranquil.”  To that I say, “Right on brother.  I love a happy ending.”

So what’s the moral of this post?

A. You should be afraid. Very afraid.
B. Never follow a scientist into a volcano.
C. Never follow a cowboy into Yellowstone.
D. When at Yellowstone, don’t feed the bears.
E. What?  In addition to worrying about volcanoes at Yellowstone, I have to worry about rocks falling, earthquakes happening, and new vents in the ground that I could fall into?
F. Don’t worry. Be happy.
G. All of the above
H. None of the above

I don’t know, I don’t know,
I don’t know where I’m a-gonna go
When the volcano blows,
I don’t know, I don’t know,
I don’t know where I’m a-gonna go
When the volcano blows

Ground she’s movin’ under me
Tidal waves out on the sea,
Sulphur smoke up in the sky
Pretty soon we learn to fly

Let me hear ya now I don’t know, I don’t know,
I don’t know where I’m a-gonna go
When the volcano blows

– Jimmy Buffet