It is a park unlike any other. So big that its boundaries stretch into three states, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. It is bigger than the combined area of Rhode Island and Delaware. It is 63 miles from south to north, 54 miles east to west and its lowest point is two feet higher than Denver at 5,282 feet. It is Yellowstone National Park, America’s first ever national park.
There are many things about this American treasure that inspire awe for the more than four million people who visit the park each year. Seeing one of North America’s biggest land animals on a visit---the bison, grizzly bear or moose---is almost guaranteed. And, no trip to the park would be complete without seeing Old Faithful, a geyser that spouts thousands of gallons of boiling water and steam a hundred or more feet into the air on the hour. But what exactly makes Old Faithful so, well, faithful?
The answer is, it’s what visitors to Yellowstone don’t see or would ever want to see. It’s what lies beneath this majestic stretch of mountains, forest and jaw-dropping beauty that is geologically magnificent and malevolent. Underground and out of sight, lies a volcano. Not a volcano like Hawaii’s, a dome-shaped one that rises high, but a super-duper, mega-bad, colossal volcano that sits miles below ground. Out of sight but definitely not out of mind. It’s a volcano that, should it erupt, would make 1980’s Mt. Saint Helen’s eruption seem like child’s play. It could do stuff that Hollywood hasn’t even imagined!
“There’s been three eruptions,” said University of Wyoming geologist Ken Simms of Yellowstone’s ticking time bomb. Luckily, the last one was so long ago that the only way to connect the dots on what havoc it caused is to do what Simms does; study the aftermath. “The last eruption was 600,000 years ago,” said Simms. But it was a doozy! It spewed an estimated 240 cubic miles of ash, dirt and poisonous gas into the air. It was a thousand times more volatile than 1980’s Mt. Saint Helen’s eruption.
What lies beneath Yellowstone, Simms acknowledged, is definitely something to think about. Simms and geologists who study these things describe a hellish magma chamber---bubbling molten rock---that exceeds the distance between Denver and Albuquerque, more than 450 miles. Set free, it’s enough lava to fill 13 Grand Canyons. Visualizing this cauldron could keep you sleepless. But it might be wise to take a breath, he said.
“There’s a lot of fear mongering,” he said. There’s also a whole lot of shaking going on at Yellowstone. Small earthquakes are normal. In fact, there are from 1,000 to 3,000 earthquakes measured each year at the park. Most are never felt.
But, as dangerous and foreboding as it might seem, it’s nothing more than shaky ground, even if you know that the bubbling magma is rising at a rate of two inches a year. Even if you know that if the ‘big one’ hits, it’s pretty much over. And if it isn’t over, life, as we know it, would change dramatically.
If past is prologue, we could expect a major eruption to spew as much as 250 square miles of ash, dust and toxic gas into the atmosphere. The cloud would cover much of the United States and, quite literally, block out sunlight. “Once it gets up in the air,” said Simms, “it would reflect sunlight.” Within a very short time it would cause the earth to cool considerably. “The spreading ash would destroy crops throughout the U.S. It would create famine,” said Simms. It would, like previous apocalyptic events, also be devastating for animal life. Topographies would change. Vast stretches of mountain ranges would be dramatically altered. Some could disappear or new ones could sprout up.
Yellowstone is well equipped for measuring seismic activity with devices scattered throughout the park. Park officials also have plans in place for earthquake that include well marked exits for moving visitors quickly out of the danger zone. It just makes sense and not just because of Yellowstone’s cauldron. A 7.3 earthquake hit northwest of Yellowstone in Wyoming in 1959 killing 28 people. It caused millions in damages to roads and bridges. It also created a brand new lake, now aptly named Quake Lake.
But if Yellowstone is on your bucket list, don’t change your plans, said Simms. You can visit one of the crown jewels of the national park system with high confidence that you’ll live to tell about it. “The chance of (super) eruption in Yellowstone is .00014 percent,” said the professor of isotope geology. Simms and people who study these things---volcanologists---don’t think an eruption is imminent. “There’s been three eruptions,” he said, “roughly 700,000 years apart.”
If you do the math using twenty years as a generation, the next 30,000-plus generations of your bloodline will be able to make a Yellowstone visit before ‘the big one’ hits. You can start your planning now and with confidence.