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Reactions To Yellowstone Supervolcano Study Ranged From Hysteria To Ho-Hum


There's plenty of geothermal activity at Yellowstone, but does it portend a crisis? Porcelain Basin at Yellowstone National Park. NPS photo by Jim Peaco.

News from the parks in 2013 offered some fine opportunities for reporters, but for those inclined toward dramatic headlines, few stories could match an updated study on the "Yellowstone Super-Volcano." Depending upon the source, readers might conclude that the end is near...or it's no big deal.

In early December, the results of a study on the magma chamber underlying Yellowstone National Park were apparently announced at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. The work, which found that the size of the magna body is larger than previously believed, was conducted by scientists from the University of Utah and Swiss Seismological Service in Zurich.

Plenty of Drama in Headlines About This Study

It didn't take long for an eruption of sorts to occur in the media around the world.

One story, There's A Volcano Under Yellowstone That Could Destroy Us All, warned that "the giant pool of magma beneath Yellowstone National Park is 2.5 times larger than originally thought and holds enough power to destroy the entire country."

Yet another source warned its readers with a sobering headline: Yellowstone Supervolcano Alert: The Most Dangerous Volcano In America Is Roaring To Life. This writer puts us all on notice: "... sleeping underneath Yellowstone is a volcanic beast that could destroy our nation in a single day and now that beast is starting to wake up."

A writer for a daily publication in the United Kingdom titled his piece, Yellowstone: The Super-Volcano that Could Blow up America, and he even made a bit of history by relocating the park to another state altogether. His report noted, "A super-volcano under Yellowstone National Park in California is an even bigger threat to the US than previously thought, scientists have found."

Well, if Yellowstone has already shifted all the way over to California, perhaps we'd better take this thing a bit more seriously.

One Writer Claims a Supervolcano Cover-Up

The situation even created an opportunity of sorts for conspiracy theorists, with one source claiming that the President has reissued a gag order on the U. S. Geological Survey (USGS) concerning "any information about the Yellowstone Supervolcano." According to this writer, the original gag order was first imposed back in 2006 by then-President Bush, a "cover up that could cost the lives of billions."

Apparently, however, at least one USGS website failed to get the word that mum's the word, and it offers quite a bit of information on the subject.

Volcanoes, earthquakes and other seismic phenomena do, of course, pose real risks, and a variety of experts in academic and government circles are engaged in serious efforts to understand those matters and offer predictions and warnings whenever possible. That said, some of the recent media reports were perhaps just a bit over the top. So... what do some of the people who study the situation at Yellowstone on a regular basis have to say?

USGS Says No Need to Panic

One such source is the U. S. Geological Survey's Yellowstone Volcano Observatory(YVO), and that organization's website responded to the recent flurry of speculation with the following statement:

"Although fascinating, the new findings do not imply increased geologic hazards at Yellowstone, and certainly do not increase the chances of a "supereruption" in the near future. Contrary to some media reports, Yellowstone is not "overdue" for a supereruption. Indeed, it is quite possible that such an eruption will never again occur from the Yellowstone region. Scientist agree that smaller eruptions are likely in the future, but the probability of ANY sort of eruption at Yellowstone still remains very low over the next 10 to 100 years."

That source also offered a little insight into the recently released findings.

"The [University of Utah] researchers, in collaboration with a scientist from the Swiss Seismological Service in Zurich, used a method called seismic tomography to create an improved image of the magmatic system beneath Yellowstone. One should not think of Yellowstone's magma reservoir as a big cavern full of churning lava. Rather, the reservoir is distributed throughout a porous, sponge-like body of otherwise solid rock, with the amount of liquid rock (melt) varying from place to place... "

Magma Reservoir is "Way Too Low for a Giant Eruption"

"The new research shows that while the magma reservoir is bigger than we thought, the proportion of melt to solid rock (estimated at <10-15%) is similar to previous reports and appears to remain way too low for a giant eruption."

Some people will be reassured by those statements while others will choose to be worried by the more pessimistic news reports. Perhaps it's significant that I've not been able to locate any reports of a mass migration from the western U.S. by scientists who study this topic on a regular basis. Meanwhile, they continue to keep an eye on the situation, just as they've been doing for years.

"YVO scientists from organizations around the country continually monitor geologic conditions at Yellowstone. At present those conditions are normal and there is no heightened concern for public safety. Should conditions change, an established alert system will quickly notify public officials, the general public, and the media. YVO posts regular updates about activity at Yellowstone, which can be found on the activity update webpage. We encourage you to explore our website for additional information on geologic hazards and current activity at Yellowstone."

As is true of any other subject, you'll have to make up your mind who to believe, and act accordingly.

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Well done, Jim. Your article captures the essence of the matter, which is that nobody knows when the next eruption of the Yellowstone supervolcano will occur, but anybody can throw a scare into nearly everybody by pointing out that a civilization-ending catalclysm could happen sooner rather than later.

Whatever. Most of us are going to file this new information about the Yellowstone supervolcano in the same "is what it is" section of our brain in which we file our thoughts about catastrophic meteorite impacts.

I just hope the Geologic Survey guys will give us enough warning so we can grab our cameras and head for some high ground west of Island Park or West Yellowstain. Can you imagine the spectacular pictures we'll get?

That wouldn't be far enough if it really goes BOOM!

However, the next eruption will likely be a large effusive outpouring of lava, which is a much more common type of eruption in Yellowstone. (Think Pitchstone Plateau!)

BTW, Wired Science has a good blog about volcanoes, and the blog author sometimes goes on the warpath against supervolcano hype...

another photo of a large lava flow in Yellowstone, the scale is enormous compared to historical lava flows:

Sagebrusher, I just said we'd get some spectacular photos. Survival is optional.

Maybe if USGS and (especially) the University UTAH were accurately reporting all the earthquakes and had decent spectograms for the public there would be more trust. A lot of data gets erased and ommited when it somes to tilt meters, seismograms, gas charts. Intelligent people or those who have worked in government already+ KNOW there will NEVER be any warning given about an impending eruption, unless it is within 24-48hrs period. It would cause to much chaos and death to alert the public and manage mass evacuations for something that will destabilize the entire world anyway. They will have everyone shelter in place until the ash settles, only the strong and the lucky will survive.

After experiencing a swarm of about 75 small earthquakes on the Utah - Idaho border, the conspiracy websites are going nuts.  Maybe if the website producers would look at seismograms instead of spectrograms, they'd have a better understanding of the whole situation. 

But conspiracies are a lot more fun than trying to learn the facts.



Are you talking about this one plus aftershocks:

Also, only tangentially related but I think way-cool, the 8.1 earthquake off southern Mexico showed up in groundwater depth gauges across the contiguous 48 US states:

Scroll down for the colored graphs.  That particular page is actually about how they did the graphs in a few hours using their dataRetrieval R package and their public data API (all stuff I use for NPS for streamflow and other datasets).

Circling back to earthquakes, it turns out that USGS makes their historic & near real-time earthquake data available by another public API:

and for notifications (not hard-core data):

I don't know enough about earthquakes to begin to know what to do with the data feeds, or even what data to ask for.

As for spectrograms vs seismograms, personally, I'm old school enough to call them seismographs, or maybe I'm just old and ran out of paper on my drum.

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