GRANITE PEAK PUBLICATIONS: Accompanying travelers to the national park since 2002

Yellowstone Volcano Observatory scientist not worried about an imminent supereruption

Today I’m wearing my Supervolcano T-shirt, acquired at a preview showing of the 2005 BBC/Discovery Channel movie of that name. It was a scary movie for anybody, and the Internet spin it engendered has continued, since apparently many people have taken this fictional treatment as something all of North America needs to worry about from now on. Yellowstone Treasures (meaning me) interviewed our geologist (my husband Bruno) about this, and we put his comments up on our Web site soon after the movie was shown. See the nugget called “The Yellowstone Supervolcano.”

Even before that movie came out, the USGS had set up the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory, and Jacob Lowenstern is now its esteemed head scientist. Here’s part of what he said in a recent e-mail interview. Before upping the Yellowstone supereruption alert level, he wrote, “we’d need to see more going on than what we’ve seen, and we’d want to see deformation and earthquakes happening simultaneously and in some abundance.” Even those warning signs wouldn’t necessarily mean a massive eruption, the scientists are quick to note. “Scientists are reasonably good at short-term forecasts of volcanic activity but cannot look long into the future.” However, Earth’s tectonic plates are too complex for their future to be knowable. Thus, in lieu of predicting exactly when specific earthquakes and volcanic eruptions will happen, geologists “typically rely on probabilistic evaluations that are based on how often volcanoes have erupted in the past.”

“At Yellowstone,” he continued, “activity is clearly episodic. There was a very long period of volcanic activity between 170,000 years ago until about 70,000 years ago. Many tens of lava flows erupted during that time, though none were nearly as explosive as the supereruptions that are so oft-discussed in the press. Since 70,000 years ago, there have been no volcanic eruptions at Yellowstone. Nearly all geologists I know expect that Yellowstone will experience future volcanic eruptions, but we honestly cannot state when they will occur, nor do we know if there are any more supereruptions in Yellowstone’s future.

“It could still be tens of thousands of years before the next eruption. Having said that, it is always possible that things could change… and that’s why we keep a close watch.”

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I’ll be wearing my Supervolcano T-shirt in the park, starting June 20th [2011]. . .