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Yellowstone national park, volcano under Yellowstone, caldera under Yellowstone
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Yellowstone National Park

The Yellowstone Supervolcano: Is There Anything to Worry About?

January 28, 2011 10:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
A recent study has found that the Yellowstone caldera rose significantly between 2004 and 2010, sparking fears in the media that the simmering “supervolcano” beneath it will soon erupt. However, volcanic experts maintain that the chance of a disastrous eruption in the near future remains slim.

“Extraordinary” Uplift of Yellowstone Caldera

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There have been three enormous eruptions within Yellowstone National Park in the past 2.1 million years, the last occurring about 640,000 years ago. Releasing thousands of times more magma than the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption, these eruptions spewed volcanic ash over much of the United States.

Scientists have estimated that the Yellowstone “supervolcano,” is due to erupt in a similar manner every 600,000 years, causing concern that there may soon be an eruption capable of destroying half the United States.

A National Central University of Taiwan and the University of Utah study published in the Geophysical Research Letters in December has fueled those concerns. Titled “An extraordinary episode of Yellowstone caldera uplift, 2004–2010,” it found that the caldera formed by the prehistoric eruptions rose 7 centimeters a year between 2004-06, suggesting increased volcanic activity. However, the researchers do not believe that the uplift signifies immediate danger.

At the beginning we were concerned it could be leading up to an eruption,” explained Bob Smith of the University of Utah to National Geographic. “But once we saw [the magma] was at a depth of ten kilometers, we weren’t so concerned. If it had been at depths of two or three kilometers [one or two miles], we’d have been a lot more concerned.”

National Geographic, the first to report on the study, put the findings in proper context, though subsequent news stories “misrepresent[ed] the research, current geological activity, and the potential for future eruptions,” according to the U.S. Geological Survey’s Yellowstone Volcano Observatory.

Denison University geosciences professor Erik Klemetti provides a sampling of the sensationalist reports. He writes, “[M]uch like much news on the internet, information gets run through a massive game of telephone. This news about Yellowstone morphed into more 2012-style doomsday news.”

CNN interviewed CUNY physicist Michio Kaku, who said, “It’s black magic trying to predict exactly when it’s going to blow, but we do know one thing: one day it will blow.” The interview, says Klemetti, “shows us what happens when you are lazy and don’t get a real expert in the field. … [W]e definitely don’t need people coming about and spreading inaccurate information about the very sophisticated monitoring going on.”

The possibility of an eruption in the near future remains remote, despite the flurry of recent activity in the caldera. “Geological activity over the past five years includes widespread ground uplift and two notable earthquake swarms,” says the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory. “Though scientifically interesting, such events are common in large caldera systems like Yellowstone, and are not indicative of an imminent eruption.”

Background: The Yellowstone Caldera

Yellowstone National Park, located in northwestern Wyoming and parts of Idaho and Montana, sits above a “hotspot” on the base of the North American tectonic plate that is responsible for the region’s increased volcanic activity. The volcanic activity is responsible for Yellowstone’s large number of earthquakes and its hydrothermal activity, which includes geysers such as Old Faithful.

Yellowstone’s three super eruptions of the past 2.1 million years created massive volcanic depressions known as calderas. The latest eruption created the 28-by-47-mile “supervolcano” caldera, which has been filled in with ash and rhyolitic lavas by an estimated 30 smaller eruptions, the latest occuring 70,000 years ago.

The Yellowtsone caldera was dubbed a “supervolcano” in the 2000 BBC Horizon documentary “Supervolcano.” After an eruption, said the BBC, “The sky will darken, black rain will fall, and the Earth will be plunged into the equivalent of a nuclear winter.”

Projections suggest that such an eruption would be catastrophic to most of the United States; one study predicted that half the country would be coated in ash up to 3 feet deep. “The whole of a continent might be covered by ash, which might take many years—possibly decades—to erode away and for vegetation to recover,” said Stephen Sparks of the University of Bristol to LiveScience.

Concern over the dangers of the Yellowstone caldera were renewed in December 2009 and January 2010 by a series of hundreds of small earthquakes in the park.

Supervolcanoes Around the World

Supervolcanoes are also found in other parts of the world, including a 1,000-square-mile caldera in Bolivia and Lake Toba in Indonesia, the world’s largest at 1,080 square miles.Thre Discovery Channel offers a look at the world’s supervolcanos.

Reference: National Parks and Montana Travel

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