Yellowstone Supervolcano Could Erupt

Notice I said 'Could Erupt'. I didn't say 'Will Erupt'. Big difference. It 'could' erupt tomorrow (unlikely) or next week (also unlikely) or next year (depends) and so on. So why bring it up if it's not about to erupt? Excellent question, glad you asked. First, volcanoes, even supervolcanoes, are not machines with known dimensions and parts. Most of the hellish part of volcanoes is, well, down there, underground, and it's difficult to know how much of what's down there could come up here.

It's also hard to say when that could happen. Watch the second hand on a clock go around in one minute - makes a complete revolution. It's easy to predict, within a fraction of a second, when it will reach its starting point or any point on its path. Like clockwork, goes the cliche. Now take a gopher digging a burrow. It spends some time down there digging, extending a tunnel perhaps, then it pushes up a mound of dirt. You watch that mound grow for half an hour and you get pretty good at guessing when it's going to get bigger, or you think you do. Then an hour goes by and no dirt, just when you thought you could predict the behavior of a creature you never saw.

Well, a volcano is a lot harder to figure out than a gopher, and here are some reasons for that. Unlike a gopher, a volcano isn't conscious and isn't trying to achieve some goal that we might learn to understand. Second, no two volcanoes are alike, even though they operate on the same principles. Next, what we can't see - which is most of what's actually 'happening' down there - changes often, due to forces we also can't see or predict. And, since so much of a volcano is invisible and is being acted upon by forces we can't see, we're like a gopher who discovers a tiny root underground and has no idea that it belongs to a giant tree four blocks away.

We have one more challenge, one of scale. It's like the difficulty we have with numbers like five billion and six trillion. All we can do is think up things like "If you spent a million dollars every day for a thousand years... and so on. Same problem with a supervolcano. Okay, we can get an idea of, say a cubic mile - it's a box a mile long, a mile wide and a mile high, full of something, in this case 'magma', molten rock. But when that box has 600 cubic miles of magma in it, holy moly, that's hard to imagine. So if Mt. St. Helens erupted less than a cubic mile of 'stuff', and Yellowstone's volcano spit out around 2500 cubic kilometers, or 600 cubic miles, of stuff in one of its previous eruptions, what can we expect next time?

Sorry, it's not that easy. There may indeed be 600 cubic miles of magma in the chamber under Yellowstone, but there could be more. That's what came out, but maybe it didn't all come out that time. The point is, even knowing how much magma is there - and scientists do say that it is about 600 cubic miles - it's not known how much of that is eruptable magma. If some of it is thick like pudding, it may not squirt out. On the other hand, if it's more liquid, it squirts out more easily. And what's preventing the chamber from getting larger? After all, it's made of the same material as the magma contained in it. If the magma is hot enough, it could melt the chamber and enlarge it.

Some scientists believe there are currents in the molten core of the Earth. The last several eruptions at Yellowstone appear to have come from a source deep in the Earth from which magma rose and erupted. The old caldera 'scars' are still visible and are scattered in a clear line, indicating that the tectonic plate drifted over this hot source and the magma poked through it each time. Similarly the islands of Hawaii are also scattered in a line, due to the plate drifting over a hot spot, with erupting magma forming each island, and then the plate continues with the island attached.

By measuring earthquake waves in the rock underground, geologists have a more clear picture of the magma chamber under Yellowstone, because the waves pass through soft, molten rock more slowly than through solid rock. They can also follow the lower part down into the Earth about 400 miles - the tube or channel through which magma fills the chamber from below. So this volcano's magma chamber is refillable, and the supply of magma is, well, huge. Forget cubic miles, this is like refilling a squirtgun from Lake Superior. Yellowstone will not run out of magma for a long time.

Okay, so we can't predict when an eruption will happen, at least not precisely. Mt. St. Helens was being monitored closely for a long time, and while it was beign watched, apparently doing little and being quiet, it blew off 1300 feet of its top and killed almost 60 people - bang. There was an earthquake just before the blast, which apparently opened the rock and allowed what was under great pressure below to explode out. Well, all we have to do is monitor the earthquakes at Yellowstone, and when there is a strong one, we run. The good news is that there are many seismometers at Yellowstone, picking up the faintest quiver. The rest of that news is that there are up to 3000 earthquakes there every year, some ranking in the 'strong' category, and the volcano is not erupting. See the problem? It's not a clock.

The purpose of this article is not to impart a vast amount of knowledge about how volcanoes work. Notice I said nothing about gasses emanating from the ground, nor about the acidity of the water there, the effects on climate and so on. This discussion has one purpose: to help you evaluate statements made by geologists and so-called experts about what will or won't happen at Yellowstone. They can't say with any certainty when something like an eruption will happen, and they can't say what the scale of an eruption will be, if there is one. These are two huge unknowns we have to deal with. However, if things continue to develop and indicate an eruption is immanent, and an expert says so, take heed. In other words, keep your eye on this sleeping gorilla.

My way of dealing with this is the following: Yellowstone is about 900 miles north of my 'home'. If it erupts 'big' while the prevailing wind is from the north, as in winter, I will probably get a lot of ash fall but no blast or falling rock will reach this far. My house is designed to handle a heavy load on the roof - thousands of pounds - and it's not going to be snow in the desert. I also have a combination air filter which can be used as the only source of fresh air. It is HEPA (high efficiency particle arrestor) and 15 pounds of activated charcoal for removing toxic gasses. Made by Healthmate, it is used in hospitals and industries. I have the largest model, the 400. I also have a Venta Airwasher, made in Germany, which uses water as the filter medium, so you never have to change filters, just change the water. It traps all airborne particles in the water and is also a mild humidifier. If there is ash fall after an eruption, it is important not to breathe it. I also have gas masks with both HEPA and activated charcoal elements, should it be necessary to be outside when the air has ash falling.

I count seven towns or cities within 50 miles of Yellowstone -oops. What were they thinking? They are in the blast radius! Folks, please watch the movie 'Supervolcano' on YouTube (2 hours) or see the shortened version also there. It's more like a docudrama and has a lot of information about Yellowstone and volcanoes in general. You really don't want to be within 100 miles of a supervolcano during or after an eruption, unless that's how you want to be 'remembered' - unrecognizable toast. If Yellowstone does what it did before, most of the USA could be covered with ash of varrying amounts, from several yards deep to just a sprinkle. Eight inches deep can collapse a roof, less if it rains. Animals and plants die, especially in the areas hardest hit with ash. Look up 'Pompei', if you want to see what happens near an eruption.

Preppers and survivalists need not do much more to prepare for an eruption, depending on where they are and what they are already prepared for. If you're close to Yellowstone, consider moving farther away - duh. Prepare for ash - get a gas mask and filters and, if necessary, deal with a weak roof. Keep the ash out of your house. It's not really like wood ash, it's rock, like powdered glass. In your lungs it mixes with moisture and turns to concrete - not good. If you've made preparations for nuclear fallout as dust and have a sturdy shelter, you are probably ready for volcanic ash. See the movie. Take steps if needed. Be safe.

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