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One of the greatest pleasures of researching and writing is encountering ideas that are new and interesting to me. The concept of the Anthropocene is one such idea that I have looked into in some detail and want to share with my blog readers. My thoughts on the subject will come to you in a new series of posts.

The concept was new to me when I first heard the word Anthropocene at the fall 2012 annual San Francisco sessions of the American Geophysical Union (AGU). I have since discovered that although the word was recently popularized, fundamental justifications for its existence have been in the minds and writings of physical scientists for some time before that. This discussion has been taking place mostly among scientists and conservationists, yet is important to us all.

First let’s consider the word itself. It seems that British scientists have generated most of the interest in whether we humans have changed the earth enough to warrant the naming of a whole new epoch. People used other terms, mostly including the Latin prefix “anthropo-“ for human, here and there in the late 20th century, but they did not catch on. The suffix “-cene” means recent, as in Holocene, which until now has been the universally accepted term for the most recent geological epoch. How to pronounce Anthropocene? In lectures I listened to, most American speakers stressed the first syllable and most Europeans stressed the second.

Ever since Nobel Prize–winning chemist Paul Crutzen of the Max Planck Institute in Mainz, Germany, and Eugene F. Stoermer of University of Michigan—Ann Arbor proposed the term [1] in 2000, the stratigraphic branch of geology has been debating whether or not to formally accept Anthropocene into their lexicon and when it can best be said to have begun. (Stratigraphy is the branch of geology that deals with the origin, composition, distribution, and succession of strata.) A Working Group on the Anthropocene has been set up to decide questions regarding the new word by 2016, a year chosen to coincide with the International Geological Congress.

My next post on this subject will discuss the issues involved in the decision.

References

[1] Crutzen, P. J. and Stoermer, E. F. “The ‘Anthropocene’,” in the IGBP Newsletter, pp. 17-18, May 2000. Available at: http://www.igbp.net/download/18.316f18321323470177580001401/NL41.pdf

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Brits are getting into the “Supervolcano” act

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I try to read only a few of the dozens of reports that keep coming out in the media since the magma reservoir under Yellowstone was found to be larger than previously thought. But when there is new research or informed comment by a scientist, it’s worth looking at.

Today there is an interview in the old (since 1821) and widely read daily The Guardian, formerly The Manchester Guardian, giving Prof. Bill McGuire’s take on the story: Explaining Supervolcanoes: big, hot, and dangerous.

The comments—totaling 82 when I looked at them—are almost entirely the same crazy mix we get in the States.

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Just to let you know: Yesterday Jake Lowenstern and colleagues at the USGS/Yellowstone Volcano Observatory issued a very clear and detailed explanation of just what the new research on the magma system shows and how it was obtained. To read it, you need to scroll down under the map on the YVO website:
Yellowstone Volcano Observatory

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The magma system or reservoir under Yellowstone is 2.5 times larger than previously known

Recent articles including “supervolcano” in the headline in the blogosphere and in media such as the New York Post shout “We’re probably doomed” and tell us of “a volcano that could wipe out U.S.” That gets people’s attention! The whirl of media activity is all due to research presented at last week’s American Geophysical Union (AGU) annual meeting in San Francisco.

An interesting session and a poster presented by Drs. Robert Smith and Jamie Farrell have stirred up a lot of emotional response, as has a November earthquake swarm in the area. The more these things are discussed in the media, the less rational readers seem to become. Media loves sensation. Perhaps the scientists whose work inspired the sensationalism will soon issue something to calm people down. Meanwhile, I’ll do what I can with this post.

I attended Smith’s 15-minute session at AGU and read Farrell’s poster last week. I am not a scientist, but I know enough about Yellowstone and current research to say this: The size of the magma reservoir below Yellowstone tells us nothing about when it will explode. Just as a reminder, magma is liquid or molten rock, including any dissolved gases or crystals, found deep within Earth.

More and more researchers are using various methods and instruments (seismometers, strainmeters, geochemical analyses, geodesy, instruments measuring electrical conductivity, and so on) to study what is under Yellowstone and its surroundings. Let’s wish them well and not panic about a catastrophe that is very unlikely to happen within the lifetime of anyone who can read this.

What about those earthquakes? One useful conclusion reached by this recent research is: “A large earthquake at Yellowstone is much more likely than a volcano eruption,” according to Farrell.

ON THE WEB: Here is some reliable and interesting information:
1. University of Utah’s Seismology and Active Tectonics Research Group’s faculty member Bob Smith stated on December 5th that U. of Utah’s seismographs will “continue to monitor Yellowstone earthquakes and will provide additional information if the earthquake swarm activity increases.”

2. U.S. Geological Survey’s Yellowstone Volcano Observatory. Swarms of (usually small) earthquakes have been reported frequently over the years; they are detected by the USGS seismograph array in Yellowstone.

3. Phys.org’s article called “Study: Yellowstone magma much bigger than thought (Update).” A relevant quote serves to sum up my comments here: “For years, observers tracking earthquake swarms under Yellowstone have warned the caldera is overdue to erupt. Farrell dismissed that notion, saying there isn’t enough data to estimate the timing of the next eruption. ‘We do believe there will be another eruption, we just don’t know when,’ he said.”

ON THIS WEBSITE: For more about the quest to understand what’s under Yellowstone, be sure to read the nuggets called “The Yellowstone Supervolcano,” “The Yellowstone Hot Spot: History of the Science“, and “The Yellowstone Hot Spot: Modern Science“.

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Sharing facts

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Janet’s guidebook reveals many historical and geological facts to the reader. For example, here’s an excerpt from the road log for a point six miles from Fishing Bridge Junction on Yellowstone Lake:

Turnout at Holmes Point, named for W. H. Holmes after the initials W. H. H. were found on a rock here. Holmes was the artist and geologist with the 1872 and 1878 Hayden Surveys.

From this point the road follows Mary Bay of Yellowstone Lake for a while. Mary Bay was named for Mary Force, the girlfriend of Henry Elliot, artist with the 1871 Hayden Survey. Mary’s name remains on the bay, though when Elliot returned home, he married someone else.

The rounded forms and steep sides of Mary Bay attest to the fact that it is an explosion crater. The Mary Bay crater dates back about 13,800 years. The bay has lots of underwater hot springs and the hottest spot in the lake, measured at 212°F (100°C).

What if you have never heard of the Hayden Surveys? The Chronology chapter at the back of Yellowstone Treasures tells you about the 1871 one: “Dr. Ferdinand V. Hayden leads the first of three congressionally funded Yellowstone expeditions” (p. 321).

And what if you would like to know more about what an explosion crater is? Look in the Glossary and you will find:

explosion crater
A feature found in volcanic terrains. A sudden pressure drop causes hot water to flash into steam and blast a hole in Earth’s surface.

Sincerely,
The editor, Beth Chapple

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Dynamic Earth: Yellowstone geology doesn’t stay the same

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Yellowstone Treasures‘s geology writing strives to keep up—

If you were to contemplate nature’s many facets and how quickly things change over the seasons and the years, you might think that you can at least count on the rocks and the mountains to stay the same. Wrong! Geoscientists will tell you that even mountains have their own dynamics. But their rate of change is much slower than humans can easily grasp in their relatively short lifetimes. Nature shapes the land we live on over centuries and millennia, but the rate at which geoscientists learn about it using new methods, ideas, and equipment is constantly accelerating.

Wanting to keep track of all this activity as it pertains to Yellowstone Park for the updated fourth edition of my guidebook, I was delighted when my old friend Dr. Jo-Ann Sherwin offered to bring us up to date about Yellowstone’s geology. I’ve known Jo-Ann ever since she was an outstanding student, whose advisor during her Brown University PhD research was my first husband Bill Chapple. She was the first woman to earn a PhD in their geology department and has gone on to a long career in research and teaching. She also lives in Idaho Falls, convenient to the west side of Yellowstone.

Jo-Ann reviewed the entire book and made numerous suggestions. She also rewrote large portions of our geological history essay, “The Stories in Yellowstone’s Rocks.” Our goal is to make our explanations accurate but concise and as clear as possible without any technical writing. Here’s a short sample from our essay that draws upon recent research into the source and age of the water for the park’s thousands of geysers and hot springs (hydrothermal features):

What makes the different hydrothermal features do what they do? Basically, the great volume of groundwater is heated by very hot rocks quite near the surface at Yellowstone.
There is a very large amount of old groundwater, at least 60 but perhaps greater than 10,000 years old, just above the magma below Yellowstone. The source of this water may have been the glaciers that covered the area or rain and snow in the surrounding mountains, 12 to 45 miles (20 to 70 km) distant. Present-day rain and snowmelt seep down and mix with this old water, become warmed to the boiling point, boil into steam, expand greatly, and find a way to escape upward. Most of the features occur where faults are common, making it easy for the heated groundwater and steam to return to the surface.

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Understanding the science of Yellowstone

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My first mission in recent years has been to create a guidebook to Yellowstone that will stimulate others to visit and stay longer, helping them see, enjoy, and begin to understand all the amazing treasures the park has to offer. But exploring Yellowstone science is my second mission.

We can only become interested in subjects or activities after something or someone stimulates our curiosity. Think of your own elementary and middle school teachers or family members who have taken you out fishing or on long walks in the countryside, where they pointed things out to you. Several such teachers stimulated my curiosity and then encouraged me and helped me look further into aspects of the natural world. I remember particularly a teacher who was also a family friend. She introduced me to the variety of trees in our town by picking up leaves with me and teaching me their names and then pressing them. One year around the second week of August, she also taught me about the Perseid meteor shower, which fell so brilliantly in our clear Montana skies.

Many years later—concentrating often on the geology of Yellowstone—I’ve taken numerous summer courses offered by the Yellowstone Institute. I highly recommend those courses (http://issuu.com/yellowstoneya/docs/ya_summer_2013_catalog). I also audited a couple of Brown University geology classes, listened to and picked the brains of geologists, and most recently took in some sessions of the 2012 annual conference of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. 

Resources

A readily available source of recent Yellowstone scientific information is the journal Yellowstone Science, now available online (http://www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/yellsciweb.htm).

Any of the above are good ways to begin to understand some of the basics of Yellowstone’s science. And the new fourth edition of Yellowstone Treasures is a good source too, because we have brought the scientific information as up to date with recent research as we can make it without technical language.

Three books I’d like to recommend that deal in different ways with Yellowstone geology are Roadside Geology of Yellowstone Country by William J. Fritz and Robert C. Thomas, Geology Underfoot in Yellowstone Country by Marc S. Hendrix, and Windows into the Earth by Robert B. Smith and Lee J. Siegel.

I’m planning to blog this fall about two other geological subjects: Why geology is not taught in our high schools nearly as often as are chemistry, physics, and biology, and the very big subject of what mankind is doing to our earth.

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The underground mechanism of geysers

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In Earth Magazine for August 2013, I was fascinated to read about two recent studies that have shown convincingly that the very oldest theory explaining geyser activity may be close to the truth, although knowledge is still incomplete and may not apply to all geysers.

Sir George Steuart Mackenzie postulated after visiting Iceland’s geysers in 1810 that a geyser’s plumbing needs to include a horizontal cavity serving as a bubble chamber. There, after an eruption, more and more steam can accumulate between the surface of the water and the roof of the cavity, gradually building up pressure. When the pressure grows too high, the steam and water escape through the geyser’s vertical shaft.

Iceland’s geysers were not part of the studies reported by modern Russian and French researchers. They studied (respectively) the Kamchatka Geyser Valley and Yellowstone’s Old Faithful. Volcanologist Alexander Belousov concluded, by lowering video cameras into their shafts, that four geysers in the Kamchatka field have similar configurations that fit Mackenzie’s bubble trap model.

Geophysicist Jean Vandemeulebrouck meanwhile has been revisiting 1992 data from geophones located around Old Faithful Geyser by seismologist Sharon Kedar. By digitizing and analyzing her data, the French team were able to obtain an acoustic picture of OFG’s inner workings. They found that pressure builds up in a bubble trap there between geyser eruptions, just as in the Russian study.

Belousov suggests that the similarity of internal structures could be attributed to landslides in the case of the Kamchatka geysers and to glacial moraine deposits in Yellowstone and El Tatio, Chile (the third of the world’s primary geyser fields). Both types of terrain form conduits and cavities underground, as well as being located over sources of water and geothermal heat.

Besides reading Earth Magazine this month, I gleaned some information for this post from my newly published travelogue by Jules Leclercq, Yellowstone, Land of Wonders, page 117.

Cliff Geyser on Iron Spring Creek

DSCN1762

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Cutting edge science and Yellowstone

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Every day last week I attended the American Geophysical Union annual [2012] meeting with a press pass. Along with some 25,000 researchers and others interested in research advances in the geological sciences, I attended short presentations about cutting edge research; poster sessions, where a scientist explains his or her work to individual listeners; and three press conferences or lectures on earth science-related subjects.

I learned as much as I could about three questions: What is underneath Yellowstone and how did it get there? What are microbiologists learning about the microbes that live in hot springs? How have humans been affecting the earth in the last century or so—and what should be done to reduce the damage?
It takes a while to digest all that, but in the next few weeks I will write blog posts and perhaps a new nugget about what I learned.

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Yellowstone Rock Analysis 101

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mystery rockNot long ago I received a picture of a rock that came from Yellowstone, sent to me by e-mail by a visitor who had picked it up this summer. So I asked my geologist husband to take a look at the picture. Every geologist gets asked frequently to help a friend or acquaintance figure out what some rock is. As you can see from what I wrote to this correspondent, it isn’t all that easy!

. . . I’ve consulted my geologist husband about your rock, and he and I came up with some ideas to pass on to you, but we cannot really answer your question.
I have to say I am very sorry you picked up this rock, since it really is against the law in all national parks to take anything natural out of the park. [Ed.: She later found out that they did not remove the rock from the park.] “Take only pictures, leave only footprints” applies to everyone. However, since you did take it, I’ll send a few comments.
1. If you can remember where you were when you picked up the rock, that would help a geologist determine what it is, since the entire park has been mapped for its geologic history.
2. Are you sure it’s a rock and not something manmade that is highly weathered? It is probably a rock if it’s heavy and dense. Note that a weathered surface may look entirely different from an unweathered one.
3. Were there a lot of rocks that looked like this lying about or only one or two? This would be a clue as to whether it was part of the bedrock of that area or brought there by a glacier or former stream.
4. To properly analyze a rock you have to break it open with something like a sledge hammer against a hard surface and separate rock fragments from anything else.
5. When broken, does the inside look the same as the outside, especially the color? Do the dark bands go through the entire rock?
6. Related to where you picked it up, it may be either a sedimentary rock (probably laid down in layers at the bottom of a sea or lake) or, more likely in Yellowstone, an igneous rock containing magnesium and iron that’s left from a long-ago volcanic eruption.
7. A far-out guess might be that the whitish parts might be plagioclase (igneous feldspar) and the greenish parts, pyroxene or olivine.
The main thing is that a geologist really must both know where it came from and be able to see and physically test it to determine what it is.

2012

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