Reuters picked up a quirky science story this weekend which caught my attention and it has to do with Yellowstone National Park. Steamboat Geyser, the largest “active” geyser in the world, erupted on Friday. The typical response should be along the lines of so what? It’s Yellowstone. The place is full of geysers.
All true, except Steamboat also erupted on April 19th. And it erupted on March 15th. Still doesn’t sound unusual to you? Before that, the last time it erupted was in 2014. It’s a very inactive geyser. 2003 was the last time that it had three eruptions over the course of one entire year, say nothing of three in six weeks. But scientists are quick to point out that this absolutely doesn’t mean that a supervolcano eruption is about to hit. Well… at least not definitely.
The world’s largest active geyser has erupted three times in the past six weeks at Yellowstone National Park, including once this week, in a pattern that is unusual but not at all indicative of a more destructive volcanic eruption brewing beneath Wyoming, geologists said on Saturday.
Steamboat Geyser, which can shoot water as high as 300 feet (91 meters) into the air, erupted on March 15, April 19 and on Friday. The last time it erupted three times in a year was in 2003, the U.S. Geological Survey’s Yellowstone Volcano Observatory said.
The last time it erupted prior to March was more than three years ago in September 2014.
“There is nothing to indicate that any sort of volcanic eruption is imminent,” Michael Poland, the scientist in charge for the observatory, said in an email.
There have been numerous Science Channel documentaries done about the Yellowstone Caldera (which is the official name, since “supervolcano” was made up by the media). And there have been enough odd reports from scientists in recent years that the press has begun paying attention. Just a couple of weeks ago, Joel Achenbach wrote a lengthy report at the Washington Post about the caldera. He’s got a lot of great information in there about the double magma chambers under Yellowstone and its geological history. The entire caldera has blown a number of times over the past few million years, roughly 600,000 years apart. The last eruption is believed to have been 630,000 years ago.
The experts cited by Achenbach are quick to point out the same things as the scientists quoted in the Reuters article. These calderas aren’t like machines. There’s no proof that an eruption is imminent and they happen so infrequently that the probability of one coming up shortly is probably pretty small. There’s no definitive way to say that an eruption is imminent.
Of course, if you press them on the subject, they’ll also admit that there’s no way to say that it’s not imminent either.
So when a huge, relatively inactive geyser goes off three times in six weeks it at least gets you to thinking. With that in mind I began wondering if there’s any sort of disaster plan in place in case Yellowstone does go up. If it happens, the entire continent is going to get a coating of ash. In the states closest to Yellowstone it could be several feet deep. It would be, to put it mildly… a bad day.
Wyoming has an evacuation plan in place and they mention the possibility of a caldera eruption. But the plans are built more for a WMD attack or nuclear first strike. It’s assumed there will be at least some time to get ready, warn people and get them on the road. How long would we have if the Yellowstone Caldera blew up? When Mount St. Helens was rumbling in 1980 it gave us every indication it possibly could. Earthquakes, vents of noxious gas, bulges in the slope… but everyone kept waiting and waiting and nothing happened. Some gave up and went back home into the evacuation area after a few weeks. And nothing kept happening until it suddenly did and then half the mountain was suddenly traveling outward at Mach 1 in a matter of seconds. The Yellowstone Caldera is estimated to be capable of an explosion up to 10,000 times more powerful than what St. Helens produced.
So I’m not sure if there really is a good evacuation plan for the area immediately around the caldera. But everywhere to the east would need to be ready for a shower of ash, cloudy skies and a significantly changed climate for at least a few years. A quick look through the emergency plans for states on the east coast seems to indicate that nobody has really planned for this. Maybe we should be getting plans in place just in case.