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Paul Andersen: Fair Game

Paul Andersen
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Disturbing news about earthquakes came over the Internet last week, but it wasn’t about the quakes that wreaked havoc in Haiti. The Denver Post reported a “swarm of earthquakes” at Yellowstone National Park that produced 644 tremors in four days.

The quakes were only in the 2.5 range or slightly lower, with several topping 3.0. It’s the frequency of these quakes that creates cause for alarm. More than 175 quakes occurred in just 22 hours, which means a whole lot ‘a shakin’ goin’ on.

A swarm of earthquakes would be mildly interesting from a scientific point of view had it not been for an article I read recently in National Geographic (August 2009) about the Yellowstone “Supervolcano.” This geological time bomb was featured prominently in the disaster film “2012.”

After reading this sobering article, it dawned on me how piddling are most of our cares and concerns, how trifling our perceived troubles. After reading about the supervolcano, the news of a “swarm” of earthquakes at Yellowstone makes other matters insignificant.

The supervolcano beneath Yellowstone is an enormous, mushroom-like mass of molten magma that generates the heat for Yellowstone’s world-famous geothermal features. This latent supervolcano, reports Geographic, could produce an explosion of “exceptional violence and volume.”

The technical term for Yellowstone’s supervolcano is “caldera,” a Spanish word meaning “caldron,” a term synonymous with boiling liquids, hot gases and great underlying heat. The term is familiar because I’ve been reading about the Grizzly Peak Caldera, our own supervolcano, which erupted 34 million years ago near the top of Independence Pass.

The Grizzly Peak Caldera reveals itself to the trained eye as a crater rimmed with mountain peaks like the rim of a broken teacup. The caldera crater stretches from the Pass to the northern reaches of Taylor Park. It was originally 11.5 miles in diameter and more than 4 miles deep. Eruptive debris from this caldera was flung as far as the north slope of Mount Sopris, which is pretty impressive until you consider that the Yellowstone caldera is magnitudes larger and potentially a lot more powerful.

“When the pressure in the magma chamber is released through fractures in the earth, the dissolved gases suddenly explode in a massive runaway reaction,” explains Geographic, describing the eruptive force of a caldera. “It’s like opening a Coke bottle after you’ve shaken it.”

What’s amazing about the Yellowstone caldera is its enormity. The last time it blew big, it left a crater the size of Rhode Island. Attesting to the force of such an eruption, a different supervolcano called Toba blew up 74,000 years ago and caused a “volcanic winter” that “reduced the entire human population to a few thousand individuals.”

The Yellowstone caldera is estimated to be 45 miles across, spreading beneath Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. Three past eruptions there have been colossal, the smallest being 280 times more voluminous than Mount St. Helens. The biggest blast spread ash across the western U.S. all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, chilling the climate and devastating ecosystems.

The Yellowstone caldera is a “caldera at unrest,” according to a researcher who has documented signs of eruptive activity. “The net effect over many cycles is to finally get enough magma to erupt,” he explained, “and we don’t know what those cycles are.”

A swarm of earthquakes at Yellowstone might be a sign that the earth is adjusting under shifting pressures, letting off a little steam, so to speak. Or, it could mean, in the words of the late Red Foxx, “This is the big one!” If that’s the case, we might see a real-time enactment of “2012” – without the special effects.

Is that really possible? Here’s the sum up from Geographic: “The odds of a full, caldera-forming eruption – a cataclysm that could kill untold thousands of people and plunge the Earth into volcanic winter – are anyone’s guess.” It might be safer to bet on the stock market.


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