Science Continues After No Mayan Doom in Yellowstone

By Beacon Staff

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — A massive volcanic eruption did not happen in Yellowstone on Friday as Hollywood and others had suggested might mark the final “X” on the ancient Mayan calendar.

The doomsday scenario of a cataclysmic eruption of the Yellowstone volcano, killing untold millions and bringing about civilization-ending climatic shifts has been among the most widely discussed at the end of the ancient Mayan calendar. The generally agreed-upon date for the end of the calendar was Dec. 21, 2012, a day that proved to be a cold, clear winter day in the sprawling national park.

“It’s a typical day for this time of year. Sunny, chilly, snow,” Yellowstone spokesman Al Nash, who is based at Mammoth near the park’s north entrance, said Friday.

Not exactly the outlandish scene in the 2009 movie, “2012,” in which actor John Cusack fled fireballs from an erupting Yellowstone by RV and airplane.

Still, serious geologists watched closely Friday, just as they do every day, for borborygmi in the guts of the massive supervolcano beneath Yellowstone National Park to gain their clearest understanding yet about what’s down there.

A recent upgrade to the array of sensitive monitoring equipment that informs the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory is poised to accelerate scientists’ understanding of the volcano and its associated geology, said Bob Smith, the University of Utah coordinating scientist for the observatory.

“We treat it as a telescope looking down. What this is giving us is many, many times the capability we had before. It’s an enormous increase in our ability to look down in the earth,” Smith said Friday.

The improvements are yielding new ability to decipher from the smallest earthquakes the movement of magma within the volcano, he said.

In 2012, Yellowstone has been unusually quiet if anything, lately averaging one or two earthquakes a day. Most quakes have been too small to be felt.

Far from bracing for a volcanic eruption in Yellowstone — something that hasn’t happened in as many as 70,000 years — Smith spent Thursday and Friday tending to a plumbing leak in his home in Jackson Hole, south of Yellowstone.

Recent events uphold Yellowstone’s reputation for having incredibly active and dynamic geology, however. Swarms of thousands of tiny earthquakes rattled the park over a couple distinct episodes from 2008-2010.

Some of those swarms apparently were associated with hot water or magma flowing deep beneath Yellowstone, Smith said.

“At deeper depth, it was probably magma,” he said.

New and improved seismographs brought online in the past couple years, he said, will help scientists discern which very small quakes are tectonic, or caused by shifting faults, and which are volcanic, or caused by magma.

From 2004-2010, scientists measured significant bulging in the vast caldera beneath Yellowstone Lake, Old Faithful and other features of central Yellowstone. The ground lifted by as much as 3 inches a year before subsiding somewhat over the past couple years.

“With some frequency, somebody out there starts a rumor about Yellowstone and the caldera and some potential impacts,” Nash said. “We’re glad they’re interested. We just wish they’d check out the actual science first.”

Yellowstone has had three major cycles of volcanic activity over the past 2 million years, each of which climaxed in massive eruptions that formed large calderas. The last truly epic Yellowstone eruption happened 640,000 years ago, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, which coordinates the multi-agency Yellowstone Volcano Observatory.

Lava flows have been much more common in Yellowstone, but aren’t known to have occurred within the last 70,000 years. Much more common, and occasionally as powerful as a volcanic eruption, are underground blasts of steam called hydrothermal explosions.

A hydrothermal explosion created a 1.5-mile-wide crater visible along the north shore of Yellowstone Lake about 13,800 years ago. Smaller hydrothermal blasts, such as one that left a 15-foot-wide crater in the Norris Geyser Basin in 1989, are much more common.

“It’s possible that something like that could happen at any time,” said Jake Lowenstern, scientist in charge of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory.

Major earthquakes, too, strike Yellowstone, such as the magnitude 7.5 Hebgen Lake earthquake that killed 28 people.

The long list of geological dangers in Yellowstone doesn’t seem to preoccupy most visitors to the park, said Rich Jehle, south district resource education ranger for Yellowstone.

Most aren’t even aware that Yellowstone is a huge volcano until he tells them.

“I can’t say that I’ve ever personally talked to somebody who’s come in with that deer in the headlight look, that they just found out they were sitting on top of this gigantic volcano, and do I need to get out of here? No,” Jehle said.

At Old Faithful, staff at the Snow Lodge planned to celebrate their survival with an end of the world party Friday night, said Kathie Tiedje, winter season location manager for the Old Faithful area for park concessionaire Xanterra Parks & Resorts.

“Where better to be if the world’s going to blow up, right?” Tiedje said. “Right in the middle of it.”