Good news about America's scariest volcano


One of the most disconcerting moments I've ever seen in a nature documentary came a few years ago, when I watched Discovery Channel's Supervolcano—all about the, er, supervolcano located under Yellowstone National Park.

I remember the scientists talking about how they'd been looking for a caldera—the collapsed cone of an ancient volcano—in the Park for years, but hadn't found one. That is, until the day that someone looked around and realized that they couldn't see the caldera because they were standing in the middle of it. The Yellowstone caldera measures 34 miles by 45 miles, encompassing most of the Park. Meanwhile, the floor of the caldera has been swelling since 2004—as much as 10 inches in some places. That's the bad news.

The good news: It doesn't look like this supervolcano is heading for a super eruption.

Scientists think a swelling magma reservoir four to six miles (seven to ten kilometers) below the surface is driving the uplift. Fortunately, the surge doesn't seem to herald an imminent catastrophe, Smith said.

"At the beginning we were concerned it could be leading up to an eruption," said Smith, who co-authored a paper on the surge published in the December 3, 2010, edition of Geophysical Research Letters. "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."

Ground deformation can suggest that magma is moving toward the surface before an eruption: The flanks of Mount St. Helens, for example, swelled dramatically in the months before its 1980 explosion. But there are also many examples, including the Yellowstone supervolcano, where it appears the ground has risen and fallen for thousands of years without an eruption.

Based on geologic evidence, Yellowstone has probably seen a continuous cycle of inflation and deflation over the past 15,000 years, and the cycle will likely continue, Smith said. Surveys show, for example, that the caldera rose some 7 inches (18 centimeters) between 1976 and 1984 before dropping back about 5.5 inches (14 centimeters) over the next decade.

National Geographic News: Yellowstone has bulged as magma pocket swells

Thanks to Marilyn Terrell for Submitterating

Pictured: A peaceful day in the middle of the Yellowstone Caldera


    1. Well, anyone east of Yellowstone is gonna die.

      Folks on the west side will probably get knocked on their ass by the shockwave and wonder what happened. By the time the ash cloud circles the planet and blots out the sun, they’ll be well into “apocalypse survival mode”.

    1. @a_user #3
      What do you mean? The eruption of Mount St. Helens was predicted:
      “Many geologists weren’t surprised by Mount St. Helens’ awakening. Two years earlier geologists had predicted Mount St. Helens would erupt ‘…and may even do so before the end of the century.'”

    2. They didn’t fail to predict Mt. St. Helens, and it didn’t take anyone by surprise. They had been telling people to stay away from the mountain well before it went.

      What did take them by surprise was the sideways blast when it first uncorked, which meant what they thought was a safe distance from the mountain was not necessarily safe in the direction of the blast. And that was three decades ago, I’m sure they have advanced the science a considerable amount since then.

      If we’re ignorant of anything about a volcano the size of Yellowstone, it’s because we haven’t gotten to witness one yet. Not that I’m itching to either.

    3. Here’s a fun little tidbit on that eruption you claim they didn’t predict:

      USGS scientists convinced the authorities to close Mount St. Helens to the general public and to maintain the closure in spite of pressure to re-open it; their work saved thousands of lives. [Wikipedia.]

      57 people were killed by that explosion instead of thousands. Of those who did die, many had either ignored warnings to evacuate or knowingly faced the danger to help gather data or protect others.

  1. As a geologist, I take heart that my field can inspire fear like few others, despite most people finding it incredibly boring :)

  2. No apocalypse? Now what the hell am I going to do with $5000 worth of ammo and a basement full of dehydrated beans?

    Someone lied to me. The end of the world is supposed to be Road Warrior awesome, not The Road depressing.

  3. I saw that show in BBC / Horizon. I think it’s from a series of scary, Nature-losing-it-for-good (as far as humans are concerned) shows.

    Dammit, that means I’ll get old and, more to the point, finish paying off my massive water bill. Stupid caldera.

  4. never been so disappointed in my life. I’ll have to wait for the big rock from the sky some where around 2036.

  5. I think you meant to say that the good news is that we are not going to die *tomorrow*. That one or other of the “supervolcanoes” is going to erupt is a certainty, as is the fact that Earth will be hit by a large asteroid, or that the magnetic field will flip. The question is whether we’ve got enough time to come up with practical solutions – and, given our lack of ability to respond to simple things (like Deepwater Horizon) then I’m really not that optimistic.

    I must confess that I did enjoy seeing Bjorn Lomborg on tv the other week suggesting that we ought to have a few more volcano eruptions as a counter to global warming. I’m not sure he meant the Yellowstone one though.

    1. Since when do magnetic field flips kill people? They’re not correlated with extinctions in the fossil record.

    2. He could have meant Yellowstone. After all, it would be fairly effective at reducing the amount of anthropogenic CO2 being emitted.

  6. I live about 100 miles from Yellowstone and keep an eye on the southeast, but there’s never any action. Bummer.
    Darn geologic time….
    But climate change — I’ve gotten to see the effects of that in my lifetime.
    Absent a meteor strike or a caldera blowout, I shouldn’t be seeing that either, but there’s that issue of the tons of CO2 I personally put into the atmosphere, multiplied by everyone else in first-world countries for the past 100-plus years.

  7. Geologist, photographer and writer Ellen Morris Bishop writes in her book, “In Search of Ancient Oregon” that Oregon was once one of the most volcanic places in Earth’s history. Some of the eruptions are so cataclysmic, you’d demand citations before you believed them. The current theory is the hot-spot that created all those eruptions has moved off across Idaho (where it created places like “Craters of the Moon”) and is now in Wyoming under Yellowstone National Park.

  8. Not to be alarmist, but PBS’ Nova has a slightly different take:

    “With its last eruption 640,000 years ago, and Yellowstone on a 600,000 year cycle, another eruption may not be that far off. A future eruption could devastate most of the continental U.S. and blanket ash all the way to the Atlantic Coast.”

    And then there’s this:

    “‘Some of us think you wouldn’t be able to miss the signs and that they’d probably go on for quite a long time beforehand,’ says Stephen Self, a volcanologist at the Open University in England. ‘Others doubt this. They think there might be cases where there could be a very short period of unrest before a big eruption.’

    “Add to this uncertainty the fact that scientists are still trying to figure out where all the supervolcanoes are. The first authoritative list of these giants was published only in 2004, and though considered a good start, it’s incomplete. ‘There are considerable numbers [of supervolcanoes] missing from the list,’ says Self. ‘It’s not anybody’s fault. We just don’t know about them.'”

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