Narrator: Saturday, September 27, 2014 at Noon local time in Japan, Mount Ontake suddenly exploded without warning. Many hikers and tourists were on the mountain at the time. One person Tweeted a picture of the top of the volcano moments before it erupted. Over 30 people are now feared dead.
Japan is a very active area for earthquakes and volcanoes. It’s closely monitored, continuously monitored, yet underscores that scientists still don’t understand volcanoes well enough to predict them accurately.
Mount Ontake shows that we won’t always get months of warning, like we did with Mount St. Helens, before a volcano explodes. And, if recent research papers are correct super-volcanoes like Yellowstone could explode suddenly, without warning, without seismic movements signaled as earthquakes.
When we think of an explosive volcanic eruption, we imagine it being preceded by earthquakes, by ground-swelling, by the mountain venting hot gas, perhaps even some lava. These are the signs we look for, and the inexact science of volcanic predictions.
But, two research papers published on the very same day this year say that predicting super-volcano eruptions is even more difficult than eruptions of regular volcanoes. More on that in a moment.
But first; do the events in Yellowstone earlier this year demonstrate changes that may be building towards an eruption?
Yellowstone National Park Public Affairs Chief, Al Nash: “We did have an earthquake of 4.8 magnitude. Now, that is the largest we’ve had in Yellowstone in over 30 years.”
Narrator: And, a couple months later shuts down a road that’s melted because of increased ground temprature. People start to get edgy about an impending eruption.
I went to Yellowstone recently, and geothermal activity is everywhere. A reminder that you’re on top of a super-caldera and magma dome, the largest on Earth.
Al Nash: “Frankly, we are just a few miles above some really hot magma. That magma serves as the heat that fuels the geysers and hot springs and fumaroles in the park. It’s that engine that allows for the unique things that we here in Yellowstone.”
Narrator: This is what the melted road looks like two months later. A Yellowstone spokesman at the time said it had turned to soup, but that was widely reported, even in the mainstream media.
But when I spoke to a ranger there, she dismissed it as simply a bad asphalt job.
David Knight: “It was closed due to melting, the heat?”
Park Ranger: “No, no, it has nothing to with that. That was just a couple of days. The asphalt was soft. It was actually a bad asphalt job that they had done the summer previous to that, and that combined with the intensity of the sun in the middle of the summer, and that it was a hydro-thermal area, that it just got soft. And, they just had to replace it.”
David Knight: “So it had nothing to do with an increase in geothermal activity in that area? The ground being hotter? It was just the asphalt.”
Park Ranger: “Yeah, it was the combination of those things in that particular spot.”
Narrator: I hadn’t visited Firehole Lake Drive when I spoke to her, or I would have challenged what she told me. Two months later the road still doesn’t look good.
But, more importantly, Yellowstone spokesman told the press at the time that people needed to stay away from the road because there was a high danger of stepping on seemingly solid soil into severely hot water.
Contrary to what she said, Firehole Lake is an active geothermal area, and you can see that the road deteriorates as it comes into proximity to geothermal features. But, it’s what we’ve come to expect from our government employees at every level; fear for their job if controversy erupts, and contempt for the public’s right to know.
If it was just a bad asphalt job heated up to the sun rather than an increased ground temperature, then why there other melted paved areas that they’ve just fenced off rather than try to fix?
My suspicion is that the spot are so hot at the moment, that they can’t fix them. Ground temperature goes up and down with seismic activity at the park.
Al Nash: “We see between 1,000 and 3,000 earthquakes a year at Yellowstone. Most of them are so small nobody ever feels them.”
Narrator: Swarms of small earthquakes that you can’t even feel can cause the ground to go through major changes. Look at this area that was once a forest. The ground was a hospitable environment for trees to grow for a long period of time.
Then, in 1978, swarms of small earthquakes caused the ground in this area to rise 200 degrees Fahrenheit. It wasn’t the quakes, but the heat that killed the trees.
So, while we may be heading into another period of increased activity in Yellowstone, it’s far from the largest activity we’ve seen as it became a park. Of course, everyone will tell you that it’s not if, but when, the super-caldera blows up.
The difficulty, of course, is knowing when that’s going to happen.
Two research papers that were released on the same this year, January the 5th, 2014, say that super-volcanoes aren’t just bigger volcanoes, they have a completely different mechanism.
The fiery mechanism is a function of the buoyancy of the gigantic magma dome, and the size of the dome. It makes it much more unpredictable than a regular volcano.
And, about the same time these research papers were saying that the eruption of a super-volcano was a function of magma dome size, we learned that Yellowstone’s magma dome is two and half times larger than they previously thought. 55 miles long, 18 miles wide, 3 to 9 miles deep.
For the sake of comparison, let’s pretend for a moment that global warming prediction used to justify global taxation of man-made global warming are true. The IPCC’s worst case scenarios range from a 1 to 3 degree centigrade increase, to a 2 to 6 degree centigrade increase, and that’s over a 100 year period.
But, if they Yellowstone super-volcano erupted, scientists say it could drop temperatures 10 degrees centigrade, that’s about 18 degrees Fahrenheit globally, and 12 degrees, or 22 degrees Fahrenheit, in the northern hemisphere for 6 to 10 years.
In other words, that’s 2 to 10 times the change in temperature the most alarmist scenario that Al Gore can imagine, and it would happen immediately, not stretched out over 100 years, and it would last for a decade. That would be real climate change.
But, of course, that would just be the temperature effect of a super volcano eruption. There’s also the devastation of the ash covering the ground, and the massive explosion estimated to be 1,000 times the size of the Hiroshima nuclear bomb every second.
Anonymous Scientist: “The science of volcanic predictions is very new, and unreliable at best. I think most of the ones that think they’d be able to predict, they’re thinking maybe, like, hours to days they’d be able to give people. This one we think we know what we’d be looking for, and most of those are for little Mount St. Helen style eruptions, which is little compare to this.”
Narrator: Yes, the deadliest, most destructive volcanic eruption in U.S. History where 57 people died is a very tiny eruption compared to what could happen, even with a partial eruption, at Yellowstone.
Mount St. Helens began in March 15, 1980, with a lot earthquakes, over 100 in 6 days. But then a 4.2 magnitude earthquake, a little smaller than the 4.8 in Yellowstone earthquake in April. 5 days later, 7 earthquakes, all over magnitude 4.0, in just 1 day.
The next day the first eruption with a plume of 7,000 feet. The volcano continued through October several weeks, and the plume rose to 20,000 feet. By April 17th, about a month after the volcano became active, a bulge began growing on the side of the mountain and began to grow at 5 to 8 feet per day.
U.S. Geological Service volcanologist David A. Johnston shown here exploring the bulge the day before it exploded believed the volcano was about to explode catastrophically, unlike some of his colleagues. Nevertheless, he, and other scientists, were surprised by the extent of the explosion.
When the mountain exploded the next day, the pyroclastic flow of rock and hot gas at nearly 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit would have begun and 220 miles per hour, and accelerated downhill to 670 miles an hour, reaching Johnston’s camp 6 miles away in less than a minute.
They only had time to radio “Vancouver, Vancouver, this it!”
An amateur radio operator, Gary Martin, located a little farther away than David Johnson, saw the pyroclastic flow overtake Johnston’s camp.
He radioed “I can’t get out of it!”
Then his radio went silent.
Anonymous Scientist: “It completely destroyed an area of 230 square miles in a matter of somewhere between 5, and 9, minutes. It essentially killed every living thing within an area of 230 square miles.”
Narrator: Bare in mind, Mount St. Helens was 1/1000th the size of the Yellowstone caldera. And, months of warning 57 people still died.
Mount Pinatubo, about a decade later, after months of warning, still nearly 900 people died there, and that was still 1% of the size of Yellowstone.
So, even if the entire caldera does not erupt at once, a small partial eruption of Yellowstone still could be the largest natural disaster the United States has ever seen.
There’s much we don’t know yet about volcanoes, and we know even less about the mechanisms of super-volcanoes.
Yellowstone is a beautiful and fascinating place. It’s truly unique. It’s a reminder that we still know very little about the massive forces that continue to shape out planet. And, it reminds us how presumptuous our climate predictions truly are.