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Yellowstone: Waiting with Bated Breath

Posted July 28, 2009 12:00 AM by Sharkles

Earth contains many varied landscapes and features such as mountains, plains, deserts, jungles, and waterfalls. Perhaps one of more fascinating features is volcanoes.

Often formed by converging or diverging tectonic plates or mantle plumes, volcanoes are openings where molten rock, ash, and gases escape from beneath the Earth's crust. A BBC documentary in 2000 also popularized the term "supervolcanoe," which refers to "explosions of exceptional violence and volume".

In this month's National Geographic, one of the United States' most famous National Parks is discussed. In the article "When Yellowstone Explodes," the author talks about how the park is seated upon one of the largest volcanoes on Earth and what it would mean should the Yellowstone caldera erupt again.

"Volcanoes Form Mountains; Supervolcanoes Erase Them"

According to NatGeo, the "hot spot" that caused the Yellowstone caldera (from the Spanish word from "cauldron") has erupted dozens of times for more than 18 million years. The tectonic plate associated with the hot spot is moving southwest, but ancient explosions are reportedly strung across southern Idaho and into Oregon and Nevada.

The last three known super-explosions have occurred in Yellowstone National Park, with the "most recent" one dating back 640,000 years ago. Though scientists cannot be positive, they calculate that the ash from the last explosion reached 100,000 feet, leaving debris all over the American West and all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico. Pyroclastic flows are estimated to have reached 1,470 degrees Fahrenheit.

While it sounds impressive, that eruption was considered tame compared to the one 2.1 million years ago, which left a hole in the ground the size of Rhode Island.

Not Extinct, Afterall

In 1870, Lieutenant Gustavus Donane completed an exploratory expedition of the Yellowstone Region and claimed, "The great basin has been formerly one vast crater of a now extinct volcano." His belief was accepted for decades before Francis Boyd, a Harvard graduate student, realized that the presence of a welded tuff – a heated and compacted ash that he'd been studying - was a sign of pyroclastic flows from a recent eruption.

Another researcher, Bob Christiansen, and his colleagues later discovered a second and third welded tuff. Christiansen's team used potassium-argon dating to discover that the three tuffs belonged to three distinct eruptions – each that created calderas, which were later buried by the most recent eruption.

"The Living, Breathing, Shaking Caldera"

Later, in 1973, yet another researcher named Bob Smith and a partner noticed that trees along the South Arm of Yellowstone Lake were partially submerged and dying. Curious, Smith began to resurvey benchmarks set by past workers begun in 1923. The results of this survey found that the Hayden Valley at the north end of the lake had risen over 30 inches throughout the decades, while the lower end of the lake had no change. This showed that the ground was doming and that the volcano was alive.

In 1979, Smith published his findings – referring to Yellowstone as "the living, breathing caldera". After a "swarm" of "mostly tiny" earthquakes in 1985, Smith revised his metaphor to Yellowstone being the "living, breathing, shaking caldera."

To this day, Smith continues his work at Yellowstone National Park in efforts to see beneath the park's surface. The continued rise and fall of the caldera has caused many to question when and if it will erupt. "We call this a caldera at unrest…the net effect over many cycles is to finally get enough magma to erupt. And we don't know what those cycles are," said Smith.

Waiting on the Next Eruption

The lingering, unanswerable question of whether Yellowstone will erupt again and to what scale remains. Some scientists believe that a modest eruption is likely sometime. Will it be a super-eruption that will kill-off all of mankind and send the Earth into volcanic winter for hundreds of thousands of years? These questions cannot be known at this time.

Now-retired Bob Christiansen believes there is a possibility that Yellowstone may be safely bottled up. The hot spot that once formed calderas in the basin and range of the West is now reportedly lodged under the thick crust of the Rocky Mountains. ""I think that the system has more or less equilibrated itself…but that's an interpretation that  would not stand up in court," said Christiansen.

What do you think?

Additional Reading about Yellowstone on CR4:
Yellowstone National Park - Hot and Steamy (Part 1) Part 2

Yellowstone National Park Has Its Own Grand Canyon

Resources:

http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2009/08/yellowstone/achenbach-text

http://www.jaunted.com/story/2009/7/21/73056/7458/travel/Things+At+Yellowstone+Aren%27t+As+Calm+As+Once+Thought

NatGeo Photo Gallery of Yellowstone

Thanks to TechoutReach for bringing this topic to my attention!

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#1

Re: Yellowstone: Waiting with Bated Breath

07/28/2009 3:27 AM

On a geological timescale, we're all toast...mmmm toast.
(yes even Cats), so just chill out and enjoy
Del

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#2

Re: Yellowstone: Waiting with Bated Breath

07/28/2009 5:00 AM

<...left a hole in the ground the size of Rhode Island...>

OK, and how large is Rhode Island, exactly? Is it as big as the Isle of Wight?

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#3
In reply to #2

Re: Yellowstone: Waiting with Bated Breath

07/28/2009 7:26 AM

Ah, I should've thought to include that!

According to the web, Rhode Island is about 1,545 sq mi and is the smallest state in the U.S.

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#12
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Re: Yellowstone: Waiting with Bated Breath

07/29/2009 5:26 AM

The Isle of Wight is, well, just quaint.

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#17
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Re: Yellowstone: Waiting with Bated Breath

08/02/2009 10:25 AM

About the size of Delaware County, NY, just SW of you Sharkles. That's a big damn hole!

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#15
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Re: Yellowstone: Waiting with Bated Breath

07/29/2009 8:04 AM

In terms of actualy land area it is probably not much bigger than the Isle of Wight. If it weren't for Narraganset Bay there wouldn't be much of RI at all...

Then again, if you flattened out Wales it would be bigger than England. Time to get the wode out!

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#4

Re: Yellowstone: Waiting with Bated Breath

07/28/2009 10:01 AM

I visited Yellowstone last summer. It's a beautiful and amazing place! You learn to respect both the wildlife and the natural features like the geyers and thermal pools.

Park guides said scientists have estimated the super volcano will blow again sometime within the next 60,000 years. Hopefully long after we're around!

See more about my visit to Yellowstone in a series of four blog entries in TechnoTourist.

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#6
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Re: Yellowstone: Waiting with Bated Breath

07/28/2009 10:13 AM

Are you saying that you hope humans become extinct within the next 60,000 years?!

I am just teasing. I remember reading your series and looking at the beautiful pictures. May it continue to thrive as a hopping (yes, hopping) place for wildlife.

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#5

Re: Yellowstone: Waiting with Bated Breath

07/28/2009 10:09 AM

I don't know tons about volcanoes, but there is something to be said about places that have had massive volcanic eruptions. I would suggest that it will probably erupt again, what would be preventing this from happening? Would collapsing a volcano really prevent it from building up enough pressure and magma for an eruption.

All I know is that I hope it is not the day I decide to visit Yellowstone Park that it decides to erupt!

Great job Sharkles & TechoutReach. Very thought-provoking article.

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#8
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Re: Yellowstone: Waiting with Bated Breath

07/28/2009 2:31 PM

"there is something to be said about places that have had massive volcanic eruptions."

Absolutely! I hear Mount Vesuvius is amazingly beautiful, but that probably has something to do with it being in southern Italy. Also, spent volcanoes make perfect lairs for evil geniuses.

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#7

Re: Yellowstone: Waiting with Bated Breath

07/28/2009 10:29 AM

I remember joking with my brother and parents about this when they went to visit Yellowstone a couple of years ago-- almost makes you think twice about going there, knowing there's a (albeit minute) possibility it could errupt!

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#9

Re: Yellowstone: Waiting with Bated Breath

07/28/2009 3:19 PM

We need to cool the rock below Yellowstone somehow; not completely, but enough to prevent the liquid magma from making it to the surface.

How about the world's largest geothermal power plant, with enough capacity to supply that whole section of the country with electricity and liquid hydrogen?

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#10
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Re: Yellowstone: Waiting with Bated Breath

07/28/2009 3:23 PM

This post has been edited out by myself...
Del

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#11
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Re: Yellowstone: Waiting with Bated Breath

07/28/2009 4:37 PM

If by rock below, you mean hot magma, that could potentially cause and even greater problem. Let's humor this and say that cooling magma from 700-1300 degrees Celsius is possible.

From what I remember, volcanoes have a series of 'pipes' or 'streams' (I know there is a more technical name for this, but I do not know it) that allow magma to disperse to various regions from the main collection site. To potentially cool off the magma would turn it to rock (if you could cool it enough). If you do manage to cool a portion of the magma, you have no guarantee that you are cooling the spot you intended. If it is a part of one of these 'pipelines', it could become blocked (somewhat like a clogged artery) and add more pressure to the main collection site (like your heart) which would be a bigger worry as it would be closer to erupt (heart failure or rupture).

This is all speculation, of course.

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#13
In reply to #9

Re: Yellowstone: Waiting with Bated Breath

07/29/2009 5:29 AM

Geothermal power is practised on a large scale in New Zealand, and the installations there provide ample opportunity for study.

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#14

Re: Yellowstone: Waiting with Bated Breath

07/29/2009 5:37 AM

There was an article in SciAm some years ago - a need to read!

Eruption seems to be very cyclic: any 700 Kyears, now due (plus some time left, may be 10 years may be 100,000 years).

Mankind will not be extinguished by an eruption. The damage will be localised.

10cm ashes predicted down to Texas and Southern Canada. This is not a big problem to survive. But the 30 and more meter of ashes "nearby" will be a problem.

Above: from SciAm.

My thought:

"breathing" is transport of new hot material through partially clogged pipes to the reservoir (100 km diameter roughly), this is coming sip-wise and then redistributing.

Big eruption: possible only if enough superheated water is dissolved in the magma so at pressure relief this will act as a steam-driven spray.

So some geothermal relief may be possible but to be tested on a smaller scale.

The first drillings to volcanoes are under way now - but difficulties to get a hole into red-hot magma are not small.

And fear among half-educated people is rising, that the scientists may trigger a big eruption.

We have a big magma-chamber nearby but nobody is willing to think about.

http://www.icdp-online.org/contenido/icdp/front_content.php?idcat=716

The link is to the "International Scientific Deep Drilling Program" that includes many interesting sites (as Chicxulup for example).

RHABE

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#16

Re: Yellowstone: Waiting with Bated Breath

07/31/2009 4:37 AM

How many electrical power (kwh) it´s there?

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#18
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Re: Yellowstone: Waiting with Bated Breath

08/02/2009 5:54 PM

Most of the power is lost by dissipation and conduction to intruded rocks.

So the best estimate of 1000Km³ erupted any 700 Kyears is not giving a good estimate if thhought to be used at the same rate as it is accumulating.

But the total energy stored in 100km³ may be calculated by roughly estimating the specific heat per cubic meter to be near 1KJ/Kg.K (as water) and the usable temperature difference to be near 300K (800 to 500 °C).

It would be more useful to trap a site of seafloor spreading as there the fresh magma is very near or really at the surface.

And there it may be a good idea to trap the hot springs where seawater that is infiltrating the cooler parts aside the spreading line coming up nearby the spreading line as superheated water - but enriched with dissolved minerals (up to 10% in weight) difficult to handle. (Discussed in another blog here)

RHABE

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ca1ic0cat (1); Del the cat (2); Jaxy (3); Mark Stockman (1); Mello (1); PWSlack (3); RHABE (2); SavvyExacta (1); Serca (1); Sharkles (1); TechoutReach (1); Tippycanoe (1)

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