Yellowstone – Wonder, Fear and Common Sense

See March 2014 update below.

As an introduction, check out the Yellowstone Volcano Primer, a collection I made for the blog of a three-part YouTube series by Jake Lowenstern, Scientist-in-Charge at Yellowstone Volcano Observatory.

While very much a boffin, in this series Dr. Lowenstern explains a lot of about this (in)famous volcano in a way that anyone can understand easily. He also has written about “Truth, Fiction, and Everything in Between at Yellowstone.

Now, with all that science under our belts, let check out this volcano, one of the world media’s favorite awfulization headline generators.

Is it really as bad as the news writers make it out to be? Well …

The Ugly

Geologists are used to thinking big, but I think it still shook them up when, around the turn of this century, they realized just how “mega” Yellowstone Volcano really is.

It’s not just a national park, of course – Yellowstone is a caldera volcano. This word, like a related word “cauldron,” implies heat; both words come from “caldarium,” the name ancient Romans gave to a heated bathing room.

Caldera volcanoes erupt so much (magma) that their summits collapse, leaving a generally circular crater that often fills in with a lake.

Four calderas overlap at Yellowstone.  (Source)

Four smaller calderas overlap at Yellowstone to form one big one. (Source)

There are plenty of caldera volcanoes in the world, and some of them are pretty big. Take Lake Atitlan Caldera in Guatemala, whose “Big One” (a VEI 7, some 85,000 years ago) spread ash from the Gulf of Mexico to the equatorial Pacific Ocean. This caldera is around 50 square miles, but that’s only 3% the size of Yellowstone’s complex of calderas.

Campi Flegrei, in Italy, has a roughly 51-square-mile caldera, but that’s only 4% the size of Yellowstone.

How about Long Valley, in California – 200 square miles? This volcano blew out some 12 cubic miles of material 760,000 years ago, but its caldera is only 14% the size of Yellowstone.

Taupo, in New Zealand – site of Earth’s most recent VEI 8 eruption, some 30,000 years ago – has a huge caldera of some 238 square miles, but that’s still only about 16% the size of Yellowstone.

Yellowstone Caldera isn’t just about appearances, either. It has delivered a number of eruptions – including the Huckleberry Ridge and Lava Creek events mentioned in the Primer above – worthy of its massive size.

No wonder that upon first recognizing Yellowstone’s mega-caldera scientists initially started talking about “eruptions and explosions of catastrophic proportions,” “apocalyptic,” and “[i]t’s difficult to conceive of a, of an eruption this big.” (Quotes are from a February 2000 BBC TV show.)

The Bad

The four large caldera volcanoes compared above to Yellowstone are at the supervolcano end of the scale.

“Supervolcano” is a controversial term but I’m using it because Dr. Lowenstern informally defined it in 2006 as a volcano that has explosively erupted at least 300 cubic kilometers (about 72 cubic miles) of material.

I can’t imagine what a 72-cubic-mile-sized eruption would be like, let alone more than that.

Consider that the May 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens blasted just about a third of a cubic mile of tephra.

Another example: The biggest eruption of the 20th century “only” produced 7 cubic miles of material.

These are clearly “bad boys”:

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And Yellowstone Caldera is far, far bigger than any of those.

So…we’re all gonna die?

Well, let’s use a little common sense. We’ve lived with these supervolcanoes for thousands of years, even if we didn’t call them that until recently, and we’re still here to talk about it. The chances of a supereruption happening during the next news cycle, or even in our lifetimes, are probably quite low.

With common sense comes perspective.

People are more worried about Yellowstone because of all the media hype, but its last big explosion was over a million years ago. Taupo went VEI 8 just 30,000 years ago – shouldn’t we worry more about that?

Well, then, what about this from Dr. Clive Oppenheimer?

“None of the volcanoes responsible for the four largest eruptions of the past century or so … had previously erupted in recorded history, nor were they considered potentially hazardous. The message is clear – the largest eruptions in future are likely to come from previously little-known, even unheard-of volcanoes.

Prediction is very complicated. Supereruptions happen so infrequently, we just don’t know much about them.

While that unsettling statement sends most of us off looking for a safe hidey-hole, scientists (once they got over the excitement of their discovery at Yellowstone) have instead expanded their view to take into account such a huge thing.

Nowadays, they monitor Yellowstone Caldera 24/7 (even during government shutdowns and park closures), share their data with other scientists and educate everybody about what’s really going on there.

When it comes to dealing with supervolcanoes, humanity is in a better survival position today than ever before, because we now recognize them and are learning more about them every day.

Emerson was right: Knowledge is indeed the antidote to fear.

The Good

Desolation follows a volcanic eruption, but it doesn’t last.

All that in just a few years at Mount St. Helens.

Look again at the four bad boys above, or rather, at the world they have built in and around their calderas – it’s wondrous and often very beautiful. Now look at how life has come back to Yellowstone, over and over again, for more than a million years.

I don’t believe that people over the last century or so, who only knew of Yellowstone as a strange and beautiful place and went there to marvel at it, were lucky to have escaped with their lives after a journey into a supervolcano’s maw. Rather, they could see things our overly-edified brains have a hard time understanding today.

The sign over the gateway into this park reads “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People.”

Today scientists, emergency planners and others are working hard there for our benefit. In the meantime, while we can’t regain our innocence concerning the volcano’s dangers, let’s still enjoy wholeheartedly everything that Earth’s inner fire and gentle skin have built there.

Yes, it will all disappear eventually – but we can see it now in the prime of one of its many lives.

Update, March 26, 2014: At least one scientist believes Yellowstone is going to have another supereruption but not for another million years. It’s an interesting idea. I wonder how it fits into recent reports about buoyant magma triggering super-eruptions (top).

Categories: Sunday morning volcano, volcanoes

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