Supervolcanoes and New Facts About Yellowstone National Park
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Supervolcanoes and New Facts About Yellowstone National Park


WYOMING — September 25, 2018

Yellowstone has, in recent years, attracted a lot of attention because a third of its territory is one of the largest supervolcanoes in the world.

Experts have long tried to determine the date of the future eruption, because its scope may well be catastrophic for the entire planet. Remarkably, the longer experts engage in the study, the more mysteries the giant volcano presents. At this time, contrary to scientists’ calculations, the geyser directly over the Yellowstone Caldera has woken up. It has only erupted four times in the previous 60 years.

According to a recent blog post by the U.S. Geological Survey’s Yellowstone Volcano Observatory (YVO), Ear Spring performed a spectacular feat of fountaining, ejecting water around nine meters into the sky.

The geyser flung water, rocks and debris into the air, and covered part of the Upper Geyser Basin in coins, cans and other refuse. Tourists have thrown garbage into a sleeping geyser’s crater for decades, apparently waiting for it to blow up and shoot garbage everywhere.

Although fountaining occurred in 2004, the last time such a prominent outburst took place at Ear Spring was in 1957.

Experts note that the unexpected emission of this geyser isn’t a sign that Yellowstone is going to erupt anytime soon. Supervolcanic systems have only erupted catastrophically once or twice in the past 2.1 billion years, which doesn’t necessarily mean this type of event has to occur again, let alone in the near future.

For example, Congress Pool Geyser, which erupted in 1891, is usually clear and contains hot water of turquoise color. But like all sources in the Norris pool, from time to time it becomes muddy and even boils for the inexplicable reason. Congress Pool also periodically erupts, but the last time was in 1974. On September 22, 2018, the Congress Pool erupted again.

Supervolcanoes and New Facts About Yellowstone National Park

It should be noted that this is not a screencap of the USGS official website or the site of the Yellowstone National Park, which is the recommended official sources— it’s a geyser afterall.

It should be noted, that the processes inside the supervolcano are extremely complex. Throughout its history, scientists and others experts have repeatedly recorded such "awakenings". In the summer, geologists also recorded numerous emissions of another geyser known as the Steamboat Geуser. However, the overall picture remains quite mysterious, which is no reason to sound the alarm.

Now that we’ve cleared all that up, it’s worth pointing out that Yellowstone National Park is one of the most geologically fascinating places on Earth. Firstly, here is a place with an incredible number of geothermal pools and geysers, transferring an exotic array of minerals to the surface that paints the park in an arresting range of colors.

Geysers exist the same wherever you go, even if their hydrothermal systems have their own idiosyncrasies. Cool water filters down into the crust, where it nears a magma source. The rocks here are hot, and they heat the water Eventually, water reaches a boiling temperature, but because of the immense containment pressure of the surrounding rock, it can’t boil.

Instead, the water becomes superheated; it wants to transform into a gas, but it can’t because of this pesky quirk of physics. When it finally finds its way to shallower depths, the confinement pressure drops dramatically. Bubbles can form, boiling occurs, and steam forms in an explosive manner. Forced into small veins of rock near the surface, vigorously bubbling water violently erupts into the air.

That, in crude terms, is how you get a geyser. Yellowstone National Park is packed with them thanks in part to the voluminous magmatic source beneath the surface.

Returning to the Steamboat Geyser — located in Norris Geyser Basin, it's the world’s tallest shooting active geyser. It’s able to produce fountains of superheated water as high as 91 meters into the air from anywhere to 3 to 40 minutes. Silica rushes out with the water, which can often coat the surrounding landscape in a glistening mud-like condensation.

These are rare, though; more often than not, you get eruptions reaching anywhere between 2 and 12 meters high, and they last for no more than 4 minutes. Either way, it’s undoubtedly an impressive sight, but its behavior earlier this year drew the attention of headline writers angling for some fear-based clicks.

This year, Steamboat Geyser has engaged in major fountaining more often than usual. As of September 17, it's erupted 19 times this year, far above the yearly average. This, as you'd expect, has led to some rather irresponsible headlines suggesting signs of an impending volcanic eruption.

The USGS has repeatedly explained that this isn’t anything to be worried about. As the YVO states quite clearly, "These eruptions do not have any implications for future volcanic activity at Yellowstone."

Geysering and volcanoes’ eruptions are certainly related to the same underlying heat source, but that doesn’t mean the two phenomena are in any way connected. In fact, they aren’t. Processes in the very top of the crust control hydrothermal activity, while magma reservoirs are buried many kilometers further down and are controlled by very different mechanisms.

What is interesting is there’s no clear regularity to Steamboat’s eruptive behavior. As explained by the National Park Service, it erupted in 1961 for the first time in half a century, before re-entering dormancy. Between 1982 and 1983, it erupted in spectacular fashion dozens of times. Single eruptions occurred occasionally since, but it has remained relatively calm until this year.

This type of unstable behavior, featuring wildly differing intervals between major eruptive events, is normal for geysers, not just Steamboat. Nevertheless, it's not clear why Steamboat became more active this year, just as the previous spikes in activity remain unexplained.

The same applies to the Upper Geyser Basin region of the park. Since the Ear Spring paroxysm, a new source of eruptive activity — described as a 'small spotter' — has appeared just north of Sponge Geyser, right beneath the boardwalk. Rather magnificently, the ground around it is rising and falling by 15 centimeters every ten minutes of so, something the USGS refers to as 'breathing.'

At the same time, other hydrothermal features, including Doublet Pool and North Goggles Geyser, are also bubbling and geysering. The hydrothermal system beneath the Upper Geyser Basin has evidently changed, expressed at the surface through more prolific activity. As with Steamboat, what the alterations may be are unknown, which scientists are yet to be properly comprehend some things about Yellowstone’s geothermal systems.

Fortunately, these latest events will no doubt offer scientists a chance to study these systems better than ever before. That’s why all this 'unusual' activity is a good thing: it’s a chance to do more research.

One last time: the YVO emphasizes that despite all the activity, "There has been no significant increase in seismicity nor broad-scale variations in ground movement. There are no signs of impending volcanic activity."

Remember, geysers erupt all the time in Yellowstone National Park, so one or two being a bit more active means nothing at all, volcanologically speaking.

The USGS response has been terse: there is nothing wrong, it’s only a small release of hot water into the air. One imagines they have grown impatient with the repeated sight of mass hysteria regarding supervolcanoes over time, hopefully the pressures built up in the scientists erupt in some laughter, however tinged by irony. The U.S. Geological Survey continues to study how geysers wake up alongside potential volcanic activity in Yellowstone. For them, there are still more questions than answers.

Author: USA Really