Could next disaster be Yellowstone super-earthquake?


So far, 2017 has been an extraordinary year for natural disasters with three hurricanes and awful wildfires. What possibly could come next?

According to some folks, it could the big blow — the eruption of the famous Yellowstone National Park Supervolcano. Or perhaps just an earthquake?

But first, let’s just ponder for a moment the extreme forces that have struck our country this year. Few folks can recall a time in America when gigantic hurricanes the size of Harvey, Irma and Maria slammed into Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico in such a short time period. 

And those wildfires in California have been the deadliest in that state’s history, with more than 40 people dead and 6,000 homes and buildings destroyed. Prior to those fires, deadly fires struck Montana and Canada in late summer. 

So what gives? Do these events portend the beginning of the end of the world?

Well, probably not yet. But what could be next? Well, heck, why not the Yellowstone National Park caldera causing havoc?

Mark Davis of the Powell Tribune wrote an excellent article recently about this possibility, which for him was a “local” story. If the park volcano acts up, Powell will pretty much become toast, along with Worland, Lander, Riverton, Rawlins, Rock Springs, Kemmerer and Evanston.

Davis wrote a news story quoting the world’s foremost expert on the Yellowstone caldera, Dr. Bob Smith of the University of Utah. 

Davis wrote that Smith has worked in Yellowstone since 1956 and has been a professor of geophysics for 50 years.

“Global appreciation for Yellowstone didn’t come about until 2005, when the BBC produced ‘The Super Volcano.’ It brought the world’s attention to Yellowstone,” Smith said.

Smith nonchalantly stated the facts of a Yellowstone super volcano eruption at a recent lecture: An eruption that could last for days, weeks or even years, five to 10 times more powerful than the 1990 Pinatubo eruption in the Philippines that killed 700 — spewing enough material to fill the Grand Canyon twice and create a volcanic winter, possibly for years, at temperatures of about 15 degrees Fahrenheit.

He reported: “A recent earthquake swarm — and the press from those on the sensationalizing end of the media — has worried many that the rumbling is a precursor to a volcanic eruption. Since June 12, more than 15,000 earthquakes have been documented. Most are weak, but are earthquakes nonetheless. It’s one of the biggest earthquake swarms we’ve ever had.”

But Smith’s concerns aren’t of the dangers of a super volcano eruption. The chances of that happening are extremely small, he said. However, before the warm comfort of the statement could settle in, he warned of the real natural killer in the region.

“What’s the biggest hazard in Yellowstone? Earthquakes. They’re killers,” Smith said.

On Aug. 17, 1959, a 7.5 magnitude earthquake rocked Hebgen Lake, Montana, killing 28 people. It was the last devastating earthquake to hit the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. By that time Smith was already into his third year of work in the nation’s first national park. 

“The question being asked by the rangers at Lake and Mammoth — ‘Are we going to have a big earthquake or volcanic eruption?’ — led us to try to understand how swarms work,” Smith said.

Smith theorizes that when the earthquakes stop, that is the time to start worrying.

Yes, Yellowstone is a super volcano, which has erupted at least three times before. Once was 2.1 million years ago. The second time was 1.3 million years ago and the last time was 645,000 years ago. 

So what would be the signals that YNP might act up again?

For decades of the last century, geologists were mystified by the lack of a discernible volcanic cone in Yellowstone as they tried to locate the caldera. 

Ultimately, satellite images helped them realize that almost the entire park is the cone. It is 50 miles long and 25 miles wide. Much of the vast Yellowstone Lake makes up this location.

Some experts point to a bulge that is more than 100 feet high at the bottom of Yellowstone Lake near Mary Bay. The bulge is more than 2,100 feet long and has only formed in the last few years. One expert asked, “Is this a precursor to a hydrothermal explosive event?” 

The last explosion of Yellowstone deposited big amounts of ash as far as Iowa and the Gulf of Mexico. Some 25 million people would be directly affected by such an eruption, with layers of ash measured in feet, rather than inches.

Yes, Yellowstone is one very, very large volcano. It would have a destructive force ten thousand times that of Mount St. Helens. It could truly be a world-defining event. And those of us who love Yellowstone and live about two hours from it, well, we might just become a memory.

Some of the features of the T.V. show that were interesting included quite a few scenes of a fictional Cheyenne, which it treated as a major national city. Amen to that.

The beginning and ending tagline of the BBC program was: “This is a true story. It just has not happened yet.”

Check out additional columns at www.billsniffin.com. He has published six books.  His coffee table book series has sold 30,000 copies. You can find them at www.wyomingwonders.com.

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