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Earth Science

Yellowstone Supervolcano Larger Than First Thought 451

Posted by timothy
from the even-superer dept.
drewtheman writes "New studies of the plumbing that feeds the Yellowstone supervolcano in Wyoming's Yellowstone National Park shows the plume and the magma chamber under the volcano are larger than first thought and contradicts claims that only shallow hot rock exists. University of Utah research professor of geophysics Robert Smith led four separate studies that verify a plume of hot and molten rock at least 410 miles deep that rises at an angle from the northwest."
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Yellowstone Supervolcano Larger Than First Thought

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  • by Dripdry (1062282) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @12:02PM (#30445072) Journal

    IF this thing will eventually blow (spewing movie credits all over the northern hemisphere, some might say), is there a way to stop it from happening? Can the volcano be "tapped" to allow the molten rock to ooze out and relieve some of the pressure? Can underground formations be "cracked" with explosives to, perhaps, add additional room underground for all this hot rock?

    While we all go on about climate change, this is something that (from what I understand) could pretty much wipe out North America, and may go off without warning (any help here? I'm not a geologist).

  • Pretty deep (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Eravnrekaree (467752) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @12:02PM (#30445082)

    That is pretty deep, it extends well below the earths crust which is about 30 miles thick below the continents, so it goes well into the mantle of the earth. This could be a similar hotspot feature to hawaii, however may manifest in a different way on the thicker continental crust compared to the oceanic crust beneath hawaii. Other similar features of this kind are the New England Hotspot which produces a series of volcanos in Quebec which have become series of hills including the one Montreal is named after. That hotspot is now inactive and off the coast of africa (the crust moved, not the hotspot).

  • by JDeane (1402533) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @12:06PM (#30445154) Journal

    A better solution would be to install several large geothermal power generation plants...

    But this would "ruin" the park.

    Ahh well who wants to save the world and get nearly free electricity out of the deal.

  • by agrif (960591) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @12:16PM (#30445302) Homepage

    Yes.

    People need to realize this right now. What are we still doing here? Doesn't it seem a little stupid to keep all this intelligence on one tiny, tiny planet? We're the only conscious things we know of, but any number of frequent, devastating events could end that forever. You'd think getting off this rock would be humanity's first priority.

  • by jim_v2000 (818799) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @12:19PM (#30445372)
    This thing goes down 410 miles. Geothermal wells go maybe a mile. Even the deepest well in the world is only about 20 miles. I doubt we're going to release any pressure with even our best efforts.
  • by Red Flayer (890720) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @12:23PM (#30445436) Journal
    My understanding is that it's less likely to go boom than in previous explosions. This is because the hotspot now sits under a much thicker crust (the rocky mountains). But as I saw one geologist quoted, "I wouldn't bet on it either way".

    Maybe there will just be additional pressure built up over more time, with a bigger explosion this time around...

    Anyway, to get back to the idea of pressure being vented... this is currently happening to some extent as fumaroles vent, geysers erupt, hills rise and subside. The question is whether the release of energies is outpaced by the buildup of energy in the system... and the answer is probably no.

    So how would we institute a controlled release of energy? Drill giant holes and pump air through to bleed off heat? If you tap the volcano, considering the pressures involved, you'd likely just precipitate an explosion.

    My suggestion, considering the timescales involved, is to ignore it as anything other than a curiosity. If it blows, put your head between your legs and kiss your ass goodbye. Otherwise, just keep living life.
  • by Wyatt Earp (1029) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @12:48PM (#30445884)

    If this went off and killed, say 65% of the North American population (I won't go 90% because not even an all out nuclear exchange with the USSR would have killed 90%). Yes, there would be enough resources to keep things in check.

    Chemical plants aren't the issue, its the nuclear cooling ponds from what I've read and seen on TV. There isn't much around Yellowstone to be consumed by lava, its going to be the ash fall out that is the real killer here. I have faith, the big chemical, nuclear and power companies have alot of plans written up and I believe they'll secure things to their best ability.

    Once the ash falls there will be record agricultural output for years without need of fertilizer, the collapse of the fishing industry will lead to resurgent ocean stocks.

  • by dpilot (134227) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @12:49PM (#30445904) Homepage Journal

    In practically anthing shy of an extinction-level event, the biggest danger won't be the event - it'll be ourselves. No doubt enough heavy weapons will survive the event that the next round of major death will be the survivors duking it out. We won't be able to begin the business of survival, let along climbing back, until the heavy weapons are spent, or at least until the long-distance delivery mechanisms are.

    The other thing to realize is that we've used up the easy resources building our civilization. If we destroy our technological base, it'll still be easy getting basics like iron and aluminum, but the only easy petrochemicals will be those in storage tanks. Even peak-oil deniers would agree that the oil that is left requires higher technology than Jed Clampett had, in order to reach it. Climbing back would be a tough process.

    As for other rocks, they may not be as inherently survivable as Earth, even considering a disaster, but presumably the survivor-violence would be removed. The real problem is building a local technology base sufficient to sustain life in a hostile environment, absent help from Earth.

  • by sznupi (719324) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @12:51PM (#30445928) Homepage

    It amazes me that we think as a people that our lives on this planet are somehow more significant than other life forms.

    How is that amazing? It's perfectly natural for any species to act that way, for one simple reason: those which don't have such trait, don't survive long.

  • by funwithBSD (245349) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @01:00PM (#30446104)

    No one lives far away enough from Yellowstone if there is a supervolcano eruption.

  • by CrimsonAvenger (580665) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @01:09PM (#30446266)

    I think it's a good bet that such an eruption would mean at least the end of human civilisation (if not human extinction).

    It won't mean human extinction. Period.

    It may or may not mean the end of human civilization (for the time being). Whether it actually does depends on just how dependent the rest of the world is on the USA. If the collapse of the USA disrupts the rest of civilization enough to bring the whole house of cards crashing down, then civilzation falls.

    If, on the other hand, the world has sufficiently recovered from WW2 that the USA is no longer crucial to civilization (note that "not crucial" is NOT the same as "not important"), then civilization will be damaged, but will recover in a relatively short time (say, 30-50 years, like the recovery from WW2).

  • by FrankSchwab (675585) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @01:23PM (#30446534) Journal

    Wow, never talk about nuclear bombs again. every single 'fact' you have is wrong.
    According to the CDI: http://www.cdi.org/pdfs/USNuclearArsenal08.pdf [cdi.org] most US warheads currently deployed are in the 100-300 KT yield range.

  • by khallow (566160) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @01:25PM (#30446590)
    Actually, the numbers don't look that bad. If we drained at a rate of a trillion watts (which is roughly the peak generation capacity in the US), that would remove the energy equivalent of a Yellowstone caldera eruption in around a century. Even draining at the rate of a billion watts (which is equivalent to the generation capacity of a nuclear plant) would siphon more energy per unit time than released in the caldera eruptions (and in my view would probably halt them in the long run).

    In turn, a trillion watts is enough to vaporize roughly 440 metric tons of water per second. At a guess, that appears to be more than double the flow rate of the Yellowstone river while it's in Yellowstone. There are other major rivers in the area (particularly the Snake and Madison) and a host of small rivers so we probably could run a system that dumps heat into Yellowstone Lake and vaporizes that much water per second. Now such a system would vastly change the character of the region (thermal features go away, temperature and humidity become much higher,massive industrial infrastructure in place) and lower its value as a wilderness. And to be blunt, it's very likely that the economic value of a relatively pristine wilderness with interesting geological features now is far more than the cost of some calamity a few tens of thousands of years from now.

    Incidentally, Yellowstone Lake has roughly 15 billion metric tons of water. So it would take somewhere around 11 years to completely vaporize that body of water, ignoring replenishment.
  • by JDeane (1402533) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @01:27PM (#30446636) Journal

    "Once the ash falls there will be record agricultural output for years without need of fertilizer,"

    The bad part is that for a few years before that happens there will also be record agricultural output... almost non existent.

    The sun being kinda important for crops to grow.

    Might be some problems with cattle too. I hear they like things like grain or corn or grass to eat.... could be a problem for a couple of years.

    The fish might recover after a while, the oceans having there alkalinity levels changed massively after having a billion tons of ash washed into them by the storms... They too would experience very hard times. The sun being blocked for even 1 year would result in massive die offs of fish. I guess algae works off of sunlight too, the smaller fish eat the algae the bigger fish them so the cycle gets broken for a bit.

  • by khallow (566160) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @01:33PM (#30446740)
    One thing this new extended magma body explains is the vigorous eruptions in the Craters of the Moon [wikipedia.org] region in central Idaho. This is a series of basalt eruptions over the past 14,000 or so years. What's significant about them is that basalt is very hot magma. It demonstrates some sort of relatively quick outlet for hot magma below. Given that the magma plume flattens to the west as it nears the continental crust, these series of eruptions are now explainable as being convenient exits near the western end of the magma plume.

    I wonder if such eruptions help to vent pressure from the underlying magma body postponing a eruption or contrarily are indications of building pressure in the underlying magma body that will only be released with a supervolcano eruption.
  • by nizo (81281) * on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @01:39PM (#30446878) Homepage Journal

    Of course one problem is that all of the easily obtainable resources will have already been strip mined by us, so that by the time something crawls back out of the muck it will be considerably harder to advance past the club and stick phase.

  • by FibreOptix (1028122) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @01:54PM (#30447176)
    I'm not very qualified to talk about this branch of science, but to further the controlled release idea that's been suggested by many users: Most responses have denied it as a possible solution due to the huge depths that these plumes reach. Some people are making a hidden assumption that you'd have to drill to the bottom of the plume. I don't know why. Secondly, from Wikipedia: "Supervolcanoes can occur when magma in the Earth rises into the crust from a hotspot but is unable to break through the crust. Pressure builds in a large and growing magma pool until the crust is unable to contain the pressure." and from the earth's crust article "the oceanic crust is 5 km (3 mi) to 10 km (6 mi) thick[1] and is composed primarily of basalt, diabase, and gabbro. The continental crust is typically from 30 km (20 mi) to 50 km (30 mi) thick, and is mostly composed of slightly less dense rocks than those of the oceanic crust." So, actually, I forget what the quoted number was for the furthest we can currently drill, but with at least a little bit of research it doesn't seem that implausible. Further, just thinking about it a little bit, precipitating a super-eruption by doing this might actually be a real concern but I think it depends on many factors: hole size, number of simultaneous holes, and composition of the plume. If there's anybody that's actually qualified to give advice on this topic, please feel free to correct me.
  • by Remus Shepherd (32833) <remus@panix.com> on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @02:15PM (#30447492) Homepage

    With the loss of New York as a financial center

    New York would survive. Estimates are that it would be covered in about 35 cm of ash.

    Here are pictures of two eruptions of the Yellowstone supervolcano: The Huckleberry Ridge Tuff [wikipedia.org] and the Lava Creek Tuff. [wikipedia.org] The areas shown are not wind-blown ash; that's where the pyroclastic ash will reach, at about 200 miles per hour and over 1000 degrees F. You can see that everyone from Nevada to Missouri is dead.

    But New York...eh, they might make it. Poor bastards.

  • by BobMcD (601576) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @02:37PM (#30447790)

    Tambora's [wikipedia.org] 1815 eruption seems to have led to a Little Ice Age [wikipedia.org]. It was a seven on the Volcanic Explosivity Index [wikipedia.org].

    Yellowstone rates an eight, at ten times the magnitude.

    "A few years" of hardship seems like a really conservative estimate.

  • by sabt-pestnu (967671) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @03:00PM (#30448148)

    Curiously, I could not locate the paper referred to in the link you pointed out.

    I did find this paper [royalsocie...ishing.org] talking about two particular bird species that seemed to avoid nesting in highly contaminated sites, which factor might be reflected in the study your article quoted.

    Your study quoted "some areas with hundreds of animals per square meter, others with none". I can think of examples of both: right on an ant hill; and the middle of an abandoned paved lot. Without actually looking at the study, it's hard to tell if they were playing fair with the numbers. ... and sometimes not even then.

  • by RobertM1968 (951074) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @03:03PM (#30448210) Homepage Journal

    If this went off and killed, say 65% of the North American population (I won't go 90% because not even an all out nuclear exchange with the USSR would have killed 90%). Yes, there would be enough resources to keep things in check.

    I wonder how correct you are... probably not at all. It's not just the explosion (to which our nukes pale in comparison - I mean, c'mon, really... nukes dont reduce mountains to nothing... Yellowstone has, on more than one occassion, leaving basins and lakes where there were mountains at one time).

    It's much of the other factors that will kill off more than 65% of life worldwide (not just in North America). We've had smaller eruptions by other volcanoes that we are pretty sure have accounted for 65% worldwide extinctions... Yellowstone's previous eruptions make some of those eruptions look like a firecracker.

    Once the ash falls there will be record agricultural output for years without need of fertilizer, the collapse of the fishing industry will lead to resurgent ocean stocks.

    Not quite... the ash (which will fall across the globe, as it has in the past) will contain sulfides, and be falling in acid rain. It will first KILL most of the crops, vegetation and so on, that is on the planet... later, the plantlife will recover, but by then, how many animals (people included) will perish due to no food? Even meat eaters cannot survive when the plants that their meat-creatures eat are all dead - thus causing them to die too.

  • by RobertM1968 (951074) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @03:10PM (#30448318) Homepage Journal

    Studies, by scientists who have studied Yellowstone for years, disagree. An eruption like the one 640,000 years ago, is expected to be a worldwide mass extinction event. The fallout effects (acid rain, no sunlight for years, etc) are also expected to be quite global. The effect to plant life is expected to be near extinction. The effect to animal life (especially when you realize there is little plant life to sustain the herbivores and omnivores) is thus near extinction.

    Current estimates, by people far more knowlegeable than you or I, range from the 70-90% global mass extinction range.

    Of course, that is assuming another catastrophic eruption. A lesser eruption, like some of Yellowstone's smaller ones, is likely to NOT have such catastrophic effects.

  • by Goaway (82658) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @03:48PM (#30448790) Homepage

    For instance, what you will find missing along the Yellowstone hotspot's line of travel are... oh, such minor things as... an entire section of the mountain range it sits in.

    I was wondering if you were exaggerating, so I looked up the map:

    http://maps.google.com/maps?f=q&source=s_q&hl=en&geocode=&q=yellowstone&sll=37.0625,-95.677068&sspn=44.60973,63.28125&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=Yellowstone,+Portland,+Multnomah,+Oregon&ll=43.47684,-113.411865&spn=5.133958,7.910156&t=p&z=7 [google.com]

    Yeah, that's just a little bit creepy right there.

    (Compare with http://geodyn.ess.ucla.edu/~hernlund/humphreys-nicemap.jpg [ucla.edu])

  • by Arthur Grumbine (1086397) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @03:58PM (#30448920) Journal

    So many extinction level events yet we linger at the precipice of become spacefaring people. Mega volcano? Mega landslide in Hawaii? Defrosting Russian permafrost? Global warming? Comet? Meteor? Gamma ray burst? Solar flare?

    Let's take a look at your list:

    1) Mega volcano: There have been a grand total of four [wikipedia.org] VEI 8 (highest level of the Volcanic Explosivity Index) eruptions in the last 640,000 years. That's an average of 1 every 160,000 years. The chance of one occurring in any given century was then 0.0625%. Most importantly - none of these wiped out homo sapiens predecessors back then, and it's absurd to think anything equivalent could now.

    2) Mega landslide in Hawaii/Canary Islands: Could inundate up to 25 kilometers inland [wikipedia.org] from the coast. Massively destructive? No doubt. Global economic collapse/anarchy? Possibly. Extinction of the human race? What are you smoking?!

    3) Defrosting Russian Permafrost/Global Warming: As I couldn't find anything particularly destructive about the defrosting of the Russian permafrost in itself, besides its effect on the warm garments industry, I'm going to assume you're thinking of how it could play a role in fueling global warming [nationalgeographic.com]. Which also allows us to face the global warming question. Is there any even slightly reputable model that estimates that within the next 200 years this planet will become inhabitable due to global warming? The worst I've ever even heard of, as regards a threat to the existence of our species, is the idea that somehow we'll end up like Venus. If this is even possible, it's not gonna happen overnight, and as the situation actually begins to threaten we'll easily be able to channel our resources and technology into adapting, or developing on off-planet solution. Most likely adapting. Is there the possibility of the loss/adjustment of quality-of-life/lifestyle on major scale? Absolutely. Is there going to be major loss of life? Possibly. Extinction?! No freaking way. Also, global warming isn't an "event" unless you subscribe to the "Day After Tomorrow" hilarity.

    4) Comet/Meteor: Wikipedia says [wikipedia.org] that there have been an estimated 60 objects that have struck the Earth with a diameter greater than 5 kilometers in the last 600 million years. These may have resulted in, at most, all 5 mass-extinctions [wikipedia.org] that have taken place in the last 540 million years, the largest killed off 90% of life on Earth. Note that there is disagreement, and lack of evidence that all these mass extinctions were caused by impact events. Even if you believe that no humans would be resourceful enough to survive such an equivalent event; and that the future impact object would not be detected and prepared for, or even prevented; then the likelihood of us being extinguished in any given millenium is about 1 in 90000, or 0.0011%. Personally, I say that for just this millenium we not freak out about it.

    5) Gamma Ray Burst/Solar flare: I'm pretty sure a GRB is gonna destroy all life wherever it hits, and it's just as likely to hit any other region of space we might be inhabiting. The only way to protect against it would be spread out over enough of an area that no single GRB could destroy us. Fortunately, the likelihood of a GRB or a solar flare powerful enough to destroy all life is even less than the comet/meteor impact event - seeing as how there hasn't been a single event in the last however many hundreds of millions of years it's been since life began on Earth.

    Basically, the gist of all this perspective i

  • by gurps_npc (621217) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @04:25PM (#30449220) Homepage
    The problem is not the depth. It is the amount of energy.

    Quite simply, the last super-eruption contained more than 10 times the force of all the nuclear bombs ever created.

    The ENTIRE US consumes about 400 petajoules of energy each year.

    But the Yellowstone explosion that formed the crater used up 3,661,000 petajoules. That's over 9 thousand times the energy. So lets say we really go all out and find a way to safely handle ALL the energy the US normally uses in a year. We drain 400 petajoules each year from yellowstone. Granted, most of that power would be wasted as you lose energy when you transport it long distances, but lets pretend we care more about removing the energy than using it. I doubt we COULD drain that much energy, but lets assume we could.

    So, each year we drain about 1/9000th of the energy. Assuming it is about to blow (as it has been a VERY long time since it has blown), in 4,500 years, we will have halved the size of the explosion.

  • by FibreOptix (1028122) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @04:42PM (#30449434)
    Well, then it really depends if you're reducing the pressure buildup by drilling into it. The energy figure you're quoting is that of a super eruption, which you'll only have to worry about dissipating if the thing blows. So, when you talk about drilling into it without it blowing and then trying to dissipate all of that energy afterward, I would think that if by drilling into it there's less pressure than before, and it didn't blow before you drilled into it, then you might be in a safer place than before... Again, wild speculation on my part but what the hell, this is slashdot isn't it?
  • by Shotgun (30919) on Tuesday December 15, 2009 @05:32PM (#30450170)

    Supervolcanoes can occur when magma in the Earth rises into the crust from a hotspot but is unable to break through the crust

    I think that is the crux of the solution right there. You don't need or even want to concern yourself with the whole area of molten rock that is under Yellowstone. You want to tap into and bleed off energy from the hotspots. Do this using lateral drilling with liquid cooled drillbits. Once you hit molten stuff, you will basically be creating a pipe of hardened magma as you progress through the center of the hotspot. If the surrounding heat threatens to overpower your cooling system, just stop the progression of the drill until the cooling system can make the pipe walls thicker.

    The removed heat can be used to drive turbines to create electricity.

  • by khallow (566160) on Wednesday December 16, 2009 @09:23AM (#30456584)

    but this is precisely the type of event that would hit really hard and fast.

    Not really. While a supervolcano is a different beast from a regular volcano, it is worth noting that we have normally have years of warning with respect to regular volcanoes. The real problem is that we don't know the effects of an eruption or the exact timing. So for example, we would know that an eruption is coming, but not whether it'd be like one of the more mundane eruptions of the past few hundred thousand years or a major caldera event.

    even if we were to assume a small number of months of warning and build up time it's highly unlikely we would actually get it done before the big eruption.

    That'd be more than enough time to move people out of the dangerous areas, namely, the central US and Canada.

    We simply don't have the global political will to make it happen in that time scale--let alone to get a start now when it's all theoretical (on a human timescale).

    Even if there is a scenario that requires "underground bunkers" built in a few months, it's silly to think that building a bunker needs global "political will". It's basically digging a big hole and putting the right equipment in there. For example, anyone with an underground mine, a lot of capital, and some non-fossil fuel power source probably has sufficient "global political will".

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