Would a winter lasting 80 years be enough to appease “Global Warming Alarmists”
That’s how long two volcanic winters may have lasted after two separate explosions of the Yellowstone volcano about 630,000 years ago, the same eruptions that formed the Yellowstone caldera, and the last big eruptions of the volcano. The explosions occurred about 170 years apart and helped drop the ocean surface temperature by about 5.4 degrees.
These conclusions are the result of a detailed examination of sediments collected in Santa Barbara Basin, off the Southern California coast. By drilling into the basin’s mud, scientists from the University of California Santa Barbara could see the individual layers on an almost decade by decade basis, an amazingly detailed view.
Their research was revealed in a press release from the Geological Society of America last week.
Mention Yellowstone and volcano in the same sentence and news feeds hum, Facebook lights up with frightening posts and some websites hype a foreboding end to life on Earth. Especially in the past few months, Yellowstone’s supervolcano has garnered several such headlines.
First came a swarm of earthquakes, mostly small, that spawned theories of an impending eruption. Earthquake swarms are common in the area, hitting as many as 3,000 in 1985. The cause is either changing stresses in the vicinity of the 1959 Hebgen Lake earthquake, or it could be water or magma moving around under the surface, according to Mike Poland, a geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey and the scientist in charge of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory.
Last summer’s log of earthquakes was high at 2,500, but Poland pointed out that the seismic infrastructure monitoring the Greater Yellowstone Area is also much more sensitive and yet may still be missing some smaller, more localized temblors.
Another story that grabbed attention said that NASA scientists had studied how to inject cool water into Yellowstone’s magma chamber to depressurize the system and halt an eruption, according to the BBC. The system could use venting steam to power turbines, a double benefit.
Other recent headline-capturing stories have been based on a scientific study that, taken out of context, was used by some websites to create doomsday scenarios.
Arizona State University graduate student Hannah Shamloo, who analyzed fossilized volcanic ash from Yellowstone, reported that an injection of fresh magma into a system like Yellowstone’s — enough to cause a supereruption — could happen in decades rather than thousands of years.
“It’s shocking how little time is required to take a volcanic system from being quiet and sitting there to the edge of an eruption,” Shamloo told The New York Times.
That statement was qualified, though, with the footnote that there’s more work to do before scientists can verify a precise time scale.
Poland happened to be in the Yellowstone backcountry when that story appeared, requiring his predecessor to field calls on the subject from the national and international media. Although Poland has worked in Hawaii where volcanic eruptions can generate a lot of local interest, he said he was surprised by the “intense media focus” related to Yellowstone.
“There’s a psychology to this I didn’t expect,” he said, “which has me wanting to get more information out to the public, because it seems like the public really eats it up.”
An example of the continuing public interest Yellowstone’s plumbing can generate also came in October when University of Utah scientists published a report providing a better picture of the underground workings of Old Faithful geyser and the surrounding geyser basin. By using seismic sensors to capture faint vibrations, the researchers were able to map the hot water reservoir that supplies water to the geyser.
“The neat thing about these geyser systems is they are repeat experiences,” Poland said. “Assuming the plumbing doesn’t change, they can deploy in one area, move to another and see the same process to map out the plumbing system.”
The scientists estimated that the underground hot water reservoir — which is really a system of cracks and fractures rather than one large pool — has a diameter of about 200 meters, “a little larger than the University of Utah’s Rice-Eccles Stadium, and can hold approximately 300,000 cubic meters of water, or more than 79 million gallons,” according to a university press release.
By comparison, each eruption of Old Faithful releases around 8,000 gallons, leaving a lot in reserve.
“Although it’s a rough estimation, we were surprised that it was so large,” said doctoral student Sin-Mei Wu, the first author of the research.
Old Faithful got its name because it regularly erupts about every 44 to 125 minutes.