Seismic Activity at Yellowstone

You have already heard that there has been increased seismic activity at Yellowstone National Park over the last few days. Since December 26th, there have been several earthquakes a day, some jut over 3.0 magnitude, in the vicinity of the north side of Yellowstone’s lake. This is a seismically active region, but the level of earthquake activity being seen now is much greater than seen in perhaps decades (though the data are still not sufficiently analyzed to make positive comparisons yet).

Volcano experts have absolutely no clue as to what this means. A major reason for virtually total uncertainty is that Yellowstone sits on top of a very large caldera of the type that is formed by a so-called “super volcano” and the last super volcano to erupt was a few years (like, 70 or so thousand years) before any seismic or other geological monitoring station were set up anywhere. Indeed, the first really serious data collection at Yellowstone began just over 30 years ago.

Anyway, I’ve got a few resources for you in case you want to explore this further. To begin with, I recommend a look at my earlier post on this matter:

The Yellowstone Problem

As you have surely heard, the Yellowstone Caldera … the place where Old Faithful and the Geyser Basin reside … has been undergoing increased “activity” including some earthquakes and a rising up of the land. Is this a big problem? Should the evacuate? Should those of us living only a few states away start wearing earplugs?

My sister, Elizabeth, publishes a newspaper in the vicinity of Yellowstone and they’ve got a very comprehensive piece on he caldera. In fact, my sister’s nickname is Caldera Girl. So she really knows her Calderas.

Tracking Changes in Yellowstone’s Restless Volcanic System

…Since the 1970s, scientists have tracked rapid uplift and subsidence of the ground and significant changes in hydrothermal features and earthquake activity. In 2001, the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory was created by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the University of Utah, and Yellowstone National Park to strengthen scientists’ ability to track activity that could result in hazardous seismic, hydrothermal, or volcanic events in the region…

Finally, we’ve got this somewhat hokey but still fun to watch movie of how we are all totally doomed (h/t Caldera Girl).

The good news is, if this sucker blows, global warming is not going to be a problem.

I am personally keeping close watch on the seismic activity in the area and if I see anything ominous I’ll let you know. As soon as I finish packing and driving about 2,000 miles to the south of here.

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0 thoughts on “Seismic Activity at Yellowstone

  1. Well, you and your family are welcome here in FL. I think we are out of the “immediate danger” range.

    P.S. – I can’t keep up with all of the posts tonight! Aaaack!

  2. By the way, as Mike Haubrich pointed out to me the other day, there WAS an increase in pirate activity this year and this WAS a slightly cooler than expected year. So there you go. I assume he’s blogging this.

  3. Aerosols have an atmospheric residence time of months while CO2 is decades to centuries, so the cooling effects would only be temporary (economic effects a lot longer though)

    So I think warming remains a problem.

  4. I would not say the scientists have absolutely no clue. They simply have not so much data to rely on – as has been correctly stated, monitoring of Yellowstone has started just in the past few decades. The last eruption, in contrast, is 70,000 years ago (and it was not a so-called “super-eruption” but a small event, like most of Yellowstone’s past eruptions). Since then, there have probably been countless episodes of heightened seismic activity similar to, or maybe even stronger than, the current one, without ever resulting in an eruption. What should be known is that most seismic unrest at volcanoes worldwide is NOT followed by eruptions. These things simply stir every now and then. Prior to some big eruption at Yellowstone I would expect to see some very large-scale uplift (the uplift seen here in recent time is very localized and thus not related to the filling of a major magma reservoir) and seismic activity distributed over a wide area, not concentrated as it is, in a well-defined, localized area. So, for the moment, there is certainly no need to worry.
    Greetings from another, very very active volcano, Mount Etna in Sicily

  5. Has anyone heard about any effect on the hot springs and geysers? Several years ago a particularly dry year resulted in the heating up of the Norris basin (? I think) hot springs (and ground) and change in geyser eruption timing. Could a wetter season increase water pressure/movement and cause earthquakes? I don’t know really. But I do agree with Boris above, there would be a lot more earthquake and uplift activity before even a small volcanic eruption, and the magma chamber is still very deep down with over 8 km of rock holding it down. And a level 3.9 earthquake is really quite small.

  6. People out here in Yellowstone-land are reporting weird pet and human behavior – moodiness, restlessness, etc. Also some strange wildlife encounters, such as a fox that will not quit barking, flying squirrels very active in daylight and a bull elk running down the highway (should have migrated down the mountain weeks ago, but it came back for some reason), grizzly bears that have not hibernated yet. Waiting to hear from friends in the park about wolves, bison, elk, wintering birds, etc. Adds another dimension to small talk – usually it’s just about how much snow we have, how many plows are broken down, etc.

  7. I’ll make this brief. This isn’t spam, I’m not selling anything. I’m a poor recluse. My URL is a You Tube presentation of a new type of volcanic eruption I’ve discovered. The calderas are the key to understanding the phenomenon. At Yellowstone there is a series of calerda from past eruptions. I have found another series of caldera. But the ones I’ve found are much larger. Hudson Bay was formed by three massive eruptions over a period of 100 million years. A super volcano can be even larger if there is an inundation of the subterranean magma chamber from a large body of water (a lake), due to fracturing and the network of geyers. A pocket of gas is trapped and expands, causing more fractures and allowing more water to flood the chamber. This results in a massive eruption. A Mega Eruption. If the lake at Yellowstone floods the super volcano, there will be an eruption bigger than scientist predict. Why am I on here trying to convince you? I’ve tried to share my information with geologist but I’ve been ignored or dismissed. Check out my presentation and see what you think. I’m not expecting anything. New discoveries are most often mocked or dismissed outright. I now know this to be a fact.

  8. Good post Greg, and interesting comments all.

    There was a series of TV drama progs here in the UK about supercatastrophes, and Yellowstone going bang was one of them. Webage here. The scentists were all lovely and they had triffic holographic 3d computer simulations of the volcano’s bowels that they manipulated by waving their hands. It did blow, it was ginormous, but it stopped erupting just at the point where the scientists were emoting that We Were At A Tipping Point Where The World Would End If It Didn’t Stop Like Now. I think the guy got the girl, too.

    Does Caldera Girl (echt cool nickname) have any links we should keep an eye on should we become obsessed with Yellowstone’s seismic burps?

  9. Siesmic activity CAN portend an eruption if the activity is harmonic tremor. That is something that hasn’t been seen at Yellowstone yet. I have studied volcanoes and earthquakes for years; I am an amatuer geologist, but this is a life study for me; I find them fascinating. When we see harmonic tremors at Yellowstone, then we need to worry. Yellowstone has thousands of earthquakes every year; most of them cannot be felt as they are too small – in the 1-2 and up to 3 range. Mostly only felt by animals as vibrations, as they are more sensitive to this than we are.

  10. CC: One thing about the current swarm of quakes, though, is how many of them are clustered at the same location, with various depths — rather suggestive of a chimney….

  11. It has looked to me (from the seismic charts) like there have been harmonic tremors today in a number of regions, most notably Lake Mary and whatever the other Lake is that is monitored (where the cluster of quakes is). I may be reading the charts wrong?

  12. Three more quakes (one of them a 3.5) in the last hour-and-15-minutes, bringing the swarm total to 303. So the articles reading “more than 250” can now be amended to “more than 300”.

  13. And it should be noted that the new 3.5 quake was at 5.4 km depth, deeper than other quakes in the past day. Some other quakes in this swarm have been around 7 km deep; one (early on 1/1) was 37 km deep. So this is not all shallow activity, but extends down to near — or past — the magma chamber.

  14. Pyre, don’t take those depths too seriously; large errors in initial earthquake locations are very common. I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that that 37km one is just an artefact.

  15. Maria: it’s actually the shallower depths that are harder to get right. That is, a “37km” measure is less likely to need later correction than a “0.3km” measure.

  16. I just cant turn away from the YVO site, I’m so totally addicted. Anyway,why are we not hearing about this on the news? I would think an unusual earthquake swarm in a supervolcano might tweek some cnn interst.

  17. There have been more smaller scale eruptions at Yellowstone than megasuperendoftheworldasweknowit events. A major eruption occurred about 70,000 years ago, and one about 150,000 years ago formed the small caldera (small compared to the super caldera of the super volcano) which is now filled by West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake.

    A reprise of that event is more likely than the re-awakening of the super volcano, and would be catastrophic enough, thank you very much. Imagine, for example, an eruptive event that empties the lake into the Yellowstone River, the longest undammed river in the US, and the nasty, deadly, and expensive flash flood of that scale which would follow.

    I hope that someone, somewhere is doing some hydrology homework, to figure out the risks of such an event, and ways to mitigate the disaster.

    Certainly, worrying about that would be more productive than worrying about the supervolcano. There’s nothing we could do about that, and nowhere to hide. It would be a calamity of truly earth-shaking proportions, and the loss of America’s heartland alone would go a long way toward a solution to the human overpopulation problem.

    By the way. Those of you in Florida are hardly out of danger. You are still on the planet. I believe it was Alt and Hyndman, in their “Roadside Geology of Montana,” who noted that, if the Yellowstone supervolcano goes off, “we will all share the experience.’

  18. Pyre, yeah, sort of – there simply aren’t earthquakes as shallow as 0.3km, so if you get something that shallow, you know it’s either a non-earthquake (could be a bomb or mine collapse) or it’s mislocated. By contrast, there are lots of places in the world with 37km earthquakes… but Yellowstone hasn’t historically been one of them.

    All the more reason to take these numbers with a big salt-lick.

  19. My friend Jianyi hu from the Netherlands makes his effort to recommend me a superb leveling website I know he ever made three orders , package of Fast lvl55-70, package of Fast lvl70-80, custom order lvl73 – 75. they were done safe and sound in advance. he is so pleased with their terrific handleveling service that more orders should be placed with more lower price due to the New Year arrival. offer all kinds of leveling packages, nonstop or part-time leveling.

  20. According to my textbook (one not belonging to or endorsed by the state religion) the Earth is only about 7,500 years old and that mountains, volcanoes and stuff happened around 4,500 years ago.

  21. Maria: “By contrast, there are lots of places in the world with 37km earthquakes… but Yellowstone hasn’t historically been one of them.”

    I’m reluctant to disregard current data on the basis of historicity.

    Should the whole swarm itself be disregarded because “Yellowstone hasn’t historically” had this many quakes in such a short time?

    The fact is, we don’t have a very long baseline of seismograph readings, especially compared to how long the caldera’s been there.

    We’re at risk of the “too-small sample error” if we generalize from “what we’ve logged so far” to “what can possibly happen there”.

    “How can Chinese people be from China? I know dozens of Chinese people, and none of them come from China.”

  22. Simple question from a layman: Does the presence of Harmonic Tremors ALWAYS mean that an eruption is imminent???? I saw a tv show in which that statement was made…

  23. Rufus: I don’t think so. Harmonic tremors are often, in essense, the earthly sound of magma moving along. Some ‘eruptions’ are magma coming out of the ground. One can see why harmonic tremors would be of special interest, but the link is not absolute. I would imagine that it depends on the exact setting as well. Perhaps a Yellowstone expert will join us and tell us more.

  24. Greg: “Some ‘eruptions’ are magma coming out of the ground.”

    And the rest are…?

    • … chopped liver?
    • … jelly filling?
    • … the beak of the Fire-Roc chick pecking out of the World-Egg?
    • … smoke, gasses, ash, loose rocks.
  25. Eruptions can mean lava or hydrothermal. An eruption with lava can be “benign” as in Hawaiian eruptions, which you can easily outpace (the exception here would be the African volcano outside of Goma, in which the lava is exceptionally liquid) or explosive. Hydrothermal eruptions or explosions can be small or huge.

  26. Yes, Pyre,my quotes were a clue. There are all kinds of eruptions and the last on your list would be one kind. In Yellowstone, there appear to be three kinds of eruptions (though my taxonomy may not be perfect) which can be further subdivided, historically. One is your basic lava eruption, one is the hydrothermal type, and the third is the super duper megavolcano eruption which I think classifies as different from the first two. I believe that all three are known and documented for the region.

  27. Some eruptions are magmatic in character. Others can be hydrothermally related. When you have lava you have generally two characteristics. There is Hawaiian lava, which you can easily outpace. The exception to this would be the lava from the volcano in Africa outside of the city of Goma, in which the lava is exceptionally liquid and can overtake a person who is running. The other lava is thick and highly explosive, as could be seen with Mt. St. Helens and other stratovolcanos. Hydrothermal erupstions, or explosions, can be quite small and local, or can be quite large in scale, affecting larger areas.

  28. I read that the current swarm of EQs are not occurring over known fault lines but are occurring at very shallow depths and directly over the magma chamber….This coupled with the presence of strong Harmonic Tremors yesterday & at station YTP today, are cause for concern..Apparently harmonic tremors have not been present during past EQ swarms at YNP….The fear, I’ve read, is that a magma chimney is opening up under yellowstone lake & the top of that chimney is less then one KM deep……..So my question is what happens if that chimney becomes a vent under the lake…That lake is huge!…Will all that water somehow magnify the eruption or perhaps somehow dampen it, like water thrown on a campfire???

  29. Rufus: With the amount of magma down there, water isn’t going to “dampen” it, but be turned into superheated steam by it.

    On a lesser level of intensity (because the heat passes from magma through rock to water), that process has been repeated cyclically for a long time, to the delight of tourists, in geysers like Old Faithful.

    Water goes down the channel, the lower part of the water is turned to steam and pushes the upper part back out. Then new water flows down the channel, and so on.

    Old Faithful is so regular because in each cycle it takes the same amount of time to turn the water into steam.

    If the water was doing to cool down the heat source, it would have done so by now. We’d have seen Old Faithful slow down, as the water took longer to heat, and finally stop.

  30. Thanks for the info Greg, CC, Pyre. What’s your take on the catastrophe theory set out by Robin above?
    In particular, is there enough water around in the lake and surrounds to provide the rock-shattering heat shock required for a klnda chain reaction?

  31. Eddie: As long as the steam expansion has adequate venting, even out the same way the water got in (as in a geyser), it’s not too dangerous — so long as you’re not in its way.

    The danger comes when there isn’t enough venting to relieve the pressure, so it builds up in a confined space, pressing against its “lid”.

    If the pressure keeps building up until it suddenly overcomes its container’s strength, that sudden release is called an “explosion”.

    Expanding gasses in an enclosed casing are what propel bullets, and the pistons in your car engine. Well, steam’s a gas too, a huge expansion from its liquid state, and just as useful (controlled) or dangerous (uncontrolled).

    Boiler explosions have destroyed strongly wrought metal locomotive engines during the Age of Steam, and endanger poorly designed reactors in the present Nuclear Age — witness Chernobyl.

    I wouldn’t like to see a whole lakeful of water dumped into the Yellowstone magma chamber with the huge stone “lid” closed tight over it. The lid’s already bulging under pressure as it is.

    I’d hope that however the water got in, that passage would stay open behind it, so the steam could get out.

    Of course, then so could the magma.

  32. The type of explosion that is of concern is a BLEVE.

    They don’t really go into the thermodynamics of it, and their explanation is not quite right. You can have rapid boiling, but rapid boiling isn’t what causes the most serious explosions. It is spinodal decomposition. It was one of my professors that worked out the details. This is the reason that steam boiler explosions can be so deadly.

    These occur when you have a large quantity of liquid that is superheated, that is heated above the boiling point at the pressure the liquid is under. Superheated liquid is unstable and will spontaneously change into two phases, a liquid phase and a vapor phase. The new phase has to nucleate before the phase change can happen. Usually this happens at a liquid-vapor interface, but if you have a large volume of liquid that is suddenly depressurized, there is no liquid interface in the large bulk. With no nucleation sites, the liquid just sits there, and under some circumstances can explosively nucleate. That is, the nucleation wave propagates through the superheated liquid as a shock wave. It is a true shock wave, it propagates at the speed of sound in the media and a substantial fraction of the energy ends up in the shock wave. As a shock wave, there is no way to confine it because it propagates faster than a structure can deform to accommodate a load.

    If the degree of superheat is enough, the fluid can’t nucleate except explosively.

    This is often the failure mode of tank cars of propane in a fire. The propane is at the boiling point under pressure, the liquid is keeping the metal in contact with it cool, but the metal in contact with propane vapor heats up, that metal fails, the whole tank depressurizes, the large volume of liquid explosively nucleates and the shock wave shatters the tank into small pieces. Rapid boiling doesn’t generate shock waves

    In the Mount St. Helens explosion, what happened was there was a landslide, the landslide depressurized a bunch of magma with dissolved water, the magma was then at a pressure below its equilibrium pressure so it was superheated (but the temperature didn’t change, it was the pressure that changed). The large volume of superheated magma didn’t have any nucleation sites for bubbles of gas to form, so it nucleated explosively.

    This is always the mechanism of explosive eruptions; the sudden release of pressure on magma containing gases which then become superheated and then nucleates explosively. It can occur underwater too; an undersea landslide can depressurize magma and cause an explosive eruption too. That is likely what happened in Krakatoa.

    You can get explosions from water mixing with magma, but they are much smaller than the explosions you can get from high volatile content magma suddenly depressurizing. You can get small local BLEVES from water mixing with a hot liquid. There are 2 liquid phases, so no nucleation sites for vapor, so the water heats and nucleates explosively. That can mix the two liquids more.

    I don’t see any way to get a big explosion in a largely flat region. The depressurization has to be rapid (seconds), minutes or hours isn’t going to do it. You might get a big eruption, but not an explosion that dumps a cubic km of ash into the air in a few seconds.

    Pressure can’t “keep building” underground. The surface of the Earth can always move up. The pressure to move the surface up a foot is quite modest, about 1 psi. I would guess it probably takes at least a hundred psi change in pressure to cause an explosive eruption (and it is always a pressure reduction). It is my understanding that at Yellowstone the magma is under the low and flat part, not under the mountains.

  33. First, specialists are agreed: Yellowstone will not blow in a superexplosion.

    Secondly, “climate change” is a fraud. All the planets are cooling right now, since the Sun had little flare activity in the past year. Mars and Earth both are growing back their polar caps at a fast rate. Earth’s ambient average air temp lowered by one degree last year.

    “Climate change” (it was “global warming” just three months ago) is a fraud perpetrated by central banks to tax you (“green tax”, “carbon tax”) on basic living – for being alive. Scientists abandoned the climate change hypothesis in Europe December 15, ’08.

    Finally, these increased earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, broken bridges, broken internet cables strung across ocean basins, are all symptoms of one thing: EARTH IS ENTERING ALIGNMENT WITH THE MILKY WAY GALAXY, enabling much increased particle flow and forces. These forces are causing things like the Yellowstone activity and Minneapolis bridge snapping.

    FACTS: Two new planets were discovered in 2008, with 2,000 and 3,000 yr orbits. FACT: Last week (Dec 29 ’08) it was discovered there’s a black hole in the center of our Milky Way Galaxy.

    Great changes are beginning to occur. Open your minds to the change.

  34. This situation is like no other quake swarm because they’re not only closely spaced horizontally, (radius ~2 mi), but vertically as well, occurring every few hundred yards from the surface down to 7.2 km, (with the magma chamber at ~ 8 km), and not associated with any known set of existing faults:
    There was one other vertically arrayed set of quakes in 1985 but these were deep quakes away from the magma chamber and not potentially creating a fractured �chimney� to the surface directly over the shallowest part of the magma chamber. They haven’t correlated other known eruptive signatures such as uplift, gases and temperature rise because these quakes are under the frozen Lake. My concern is that although this is more likely a contiguous hydrothermal chimney than a magma intrusion, there are scant remaining intact strata between this potential chimney to the lake and the magma chamber below, leaving it very susceptible to breach and subsequent eruption/BLEVE.

  35. daedalus2u: “Pressure can’t “keep building” underground. The surface of the Earth can always move up.”

    The problem is timescale. The pressure buildup from the water-to-steam conversion would be faster than the rock above it could be shoved out of the way. By the time it won release, the steam would be far more pressurized than if it hadn’t been covered at all.

    One of the things that makes a steam explosion from lava-hitting-ocean so impressive is the delay in escape through the pressure of the still-liquid water above the water that’s been superheated into steam.

    Sort of like a pipe bomb, or Timothy McVeigh’s non-airtight moving van. If the gasses had leaked slowly out, they could have escaped. They didn’t leak that slowly. The confinement lasted just long enough to multiply the pressure and the resulting explosive force.

  36. pyre, that is not quite correct. Pressure moves at the speed of sound (sound being a pressure wave). A pipe bomb is a deflagration, rapid burning. The explosion from a deflagration is sub-sonic. A sub-sonic explosion does need to be confined to convert some of the energy into a blast wave (which is more complicated that a pressure wave or a shock wave). For very large explosions the confinement can be inertial. That blast wave is still subsonic. That conversion of chemical energy into mechanical energy is pretty inefficient which is why pipe bombs don’t do very much damage from the blast, the usual danger is from shrapnel.

    A detonation does not need any confinement. The OK city bombing was a detonation. In a detonation, a large fraction of the energy ends up in the shock wave (10’s of percent). A shock wave is discontinuous, it is less than 0.001 inch in thickness. In front of the shock the air is stationary, behind the shock it is moving at the speed of sound in the shocked media (which is now quite hot so it is pretty fast), which can be thousands of meters per second. It is the discontinuous nature of the shock that makes it so damaging.

    It isn’t the pressure that causes the damage it is acceleration, differential forces exerted on an object, pressure gradients on an object which cause different parts of the object to move in different directions. That relative motion causes the damage.

    I suppose if you had a gigantic lake of very fluid magma, and a gigantic lake of water, and mixed them rapidly you could have a gigantic explosion. However there is always an interface and because magma is denser than water it will always be on the bottom. Because liquid water is always colder than liquid magma, the interface will always be cooler. Cool magma is non-fluid. For magma to be fluid it has to be at many hundreds of degrees hotter than liquid water can exist at except under high pressure. In a static situation that pressure can only be supplied by a gravitational head, by a column of material above it. The critical pressure of water is ~3200 psi. It takes a column of rock about 3,000 feet high to reach that pressure.

    Magma does move up a volcano due to pressure, and to get magma to the top of a tall volcano does take a lot of pressure (about 1 psi/foot). The only way that a large mass of magma can be “confined” is by the weight of material above it. That confinement is mediated through the hydrostatic head exerted by what ever is above the magma and is limited to the hydrostatic pressure. If the magma has a pressure greater than the hydrostatic head, the material above it will be lifted.

    Volcanos do have some confinement due to the strength of the cooler material around the edges and in the cone. That confinement is what allows the magma to rise to the top of the volcano and to build the volcano ever higher. The magma at the base of the volcano is confined by the hydrostatic head of the magma above it. If the volcano suddenly collapses that magma is depressurized and can explode. That is what happened in Mount St. Helens.

    Liquid water flowing down through porous strata can’t cause this type of explosion because the pressure increase is so slow the pressure forces the water to flow back up. You end up with something like a geyser. The water flows down, it heats up, the pressure goes up and it forces the water back up.

    Hydrothermal systems (like geysers) can become sealed via deposition of minerals, and then continued heat flow can heat the water to a pressure higher than the hydrostatic head of rock above it. Then either the rock moves, or the pressure continues to build until it does move. Once the rock moves even a little bit, the system is no longer sealed and then liquid water and steam can flow out and relieve the pressure. That rock movement can be called an earthquake if it is large enough (but usually earthquakes are due to stress from strain in solid rock, not liquid/gas pressure).

    If the rock is highly faulted, then it has no tensile strength and will move and allow the pressure in excess of hydrostatic pressure to vent. If there is a lot of fluid to vent, and the rock is in small enough pieces, then the rock can become “fluidized”, where the spaces between the rock become large enough that the rock itself behaves as a fluid. This does happen in some sand formations during earthquakes, the sand becomes fluidized and acts like a liquid, like quicksand. If this happens on a slope, the fluidized rock can flow away like water and its removal rapidly depressurizes what ever it was covering. The initial landslide at Mount St. Helens may have been something like this. Rock can be fluidized simply by mechanical energy. Often this will happen in rock falls, the rock can flow as a fluid for km on level ground, kept fluidized until the mechanical energy is dissipated. Sometimes it will even flow uphill due to its inertia, that is in a valley a rock fall from one side has been known to flow across the valley and up the other side. In some ways this is kind of like a pyroclastic flow, but it doesn’t need to be hot or to be small particles (but those do help).

    I just don’t see any way to get a big explosion out of Yellowstone. Even a gigantic explosion will only have pretty local effects (from the explosion), less than 100 miles. The debris from a large eruption (explosive or gradual) will have world-wide effects no matter how fast or slow it is.

  37. daedalus2u: I was discussing the explosion of water->steam, not the explosion of magma. But “a gigantic explosion” of steam beneath the Yellowstone caldera “lid” could have the “pretty local effect” of breaking the lid open enough to allow rapid depressurization of the magma, and then….

  38. daedalus2: Pyre’s said it, and if you could access the list of quakes back to the 26th you’d see that the 5th one shown was at 7.2 km of mag. 2.0. The rest are almost all higher and a few hundred yards apart. My hypothesis is that the rock above the chamber is highly fractured and what we’ve been seeing is steam from water intrusion into the chamber fracturing rock above with the one exception of what appears to be a harmonic tremor at the Mary Lake seismometer just after midnight last night:
    The compiled list of quakes at USGS or U of U doesn’t show position or magnitude for anything past midnight, but if this is an initial magma flow plugging the releif valve, what could we expect?
    My guess is that we’ll have have a progressive opening of the “chimney” allowing more and more water into the chamber and/or a subsequent magma flow from the chamber.
    This doesn’t have to be catastrophic but I think the increased probability of super eruption warrants immediate storage of additional cooling water for nukes that may have to conduct blow downs for months if not years due to ash in all surface waters precluding operation of the secondary cooling loop.

  39. Update from YVO:
    Looks like the autopicker located two small events (~ M1) near the Lower Geyser Basin. You’ll notice that most of the southern and eastern stations didn’t pick it up. The University of Utah policy is to review all small events before they get put online. Because it is a Sunday, and because those folks have been working their tails off, I doubt they will make it onto the U of U or NEIC maps today, but it is possible. It’s also possible they’ll decide they are too poorly located to put in the record. That is their call. Sometimes we have to decide what is important, and what is unimportant. That is our job.

    Why do you call it tremor? Have you done an analysis of the
    frequency content? Looks like pretty typical microseismicity to me.
    People use the word tremor without proper understanding of what it is and how to recognize it. As a result, a lot of people get unnecessarily scared and society is done a great disservice. No seismologist has yet reported to me that they have seen any tremor in Yellowstone. Even if they do, tremor can be created in hydrothermal systems. It does not require magma and it does not require upcoming explosions. That is myth. One of my colleagues in Menlo Park, Bernard Chouet, is an expert in the subject. He has not reported any evidence of tremor.

    Jake Lowenstern, USGS and YVO

  40. My resposne:
    Yes I did notice that it wasn’t picked up on other stations but that’s the closest reading I’ve seen that my meager knowledge would interpret as a harmonic tremor. I concur that causing panic is a public disservice but there are a whole host of misplaced priorities that are only remediated by raising the public concern that gets translated into positive outcomes like better equipment, logistical support and staff for your work and supplementation of reserve water pools for protection of reactor cores that may be needed to provide for extended blow downs due the shut down secondary cooling loops from ash contamination of surface waters. These decisions are a matter of both proper risk analysis and the degree of public concern, with the latter providing much impetus to the former. I’ve already asked USGS headquarters and Chertoff to fulfill your wildest equipment wish list and provide the necessary logistical support so we can get to the bottom of this in a timely manner. The upshot being that the greater awareness of risk could/should lead to better civil defense preparedness, particularly for those measures that would garner the greatest benefit to society at marginal cost.
    Although my opinion may be fairly meaningless given the absence of any expertise, I concur that this sequence of events are likely hydrothermal, but I’m still concerned that this activity could continue to degrade the integrity of the strata above the magma chamber, further increasing the probability for the need of the civil defense measures suggested. Specifically my hypothesis is that possible initial water intrusion into the magma chamber has caused rising steam/pressure to set off this week long series of quakes, substantially fracturing more of the already fractured strata above the chamber. I can imagine a scenario where this process continuing for some time to eventually degrade the strata integrity to the point where magma extrusion is inevitable, and from reading your papers, it appears that no one can predict a time scale or magnitude of the eruption.

    I don’t want to cause panic but I do want you to give your boss a wish list for better diagnostic tools and rethink the logistics of getting the stuff fielded in a timely manner. I know that DHS could provide the logistical support given my knowledge of winter petroleum and military operations here in Alaska, ( ). Tom

  41. There’s a third possible reason for the “chimney” pattern (besides magma coming up, or water going down and coming back up as steam):

    This may be where the bent stick is breaking at the bend, fiber by fiber.

    The caldera lid has been bulging up in the middle, from pressure below. That means an increasing curve, or “bend”, in all directions out from the middle. At the top of the bend, the upper regions get stretched further apart than the lower regions. Rock isn’t terribly elastic. At some point of stress, it breaks apart.

    The swarm of quakes may be layers of rock breaking (as well as grinding against each other) sheerly from this “bending”, no water or magma needed.

    Of course, the weakened area may be more subject to magma or water penetrating it, as a result.

  42. Possibly and that’s why I want them to get out on the Lake, presumably ell frozen, and do a limited batymetric survey to detcet Lake bottom deformation. They may also find trapped gases to analyze. The coup would be deployment of active seismic mapping and magneto-telluric imaging equipment.

  43. I keep reading all these comments about strange animal behavior…. All i must comment about on this is that if you were hibernating, and got hit by 500 earthquakes…. WOULDNT YOU WAKE UP!

  44. The waking up may be due to toxic gases increasing underground. All underground gases are deficient in O2, so if any gases are leaking up, they would displace air, especially if there is snow or ice cover. That would be a good reason to terminate a hibernation.

  45. More questions from Rufus the layman: Numerous postings on other sites claim that the outflow from Lake Yellowstone has increased dramatically the last few days..Is that true???.Might that not indicate that the bulge under the lake is growing and displacing more water???….Other posters allege that rivers in various locations around YNP are showing higher temps then normal??…..I notice that activity has really quieted at Yellowstone today..I was a teenager living in Portland when Mt St Helens blew in 1980, ( I could actually see it from my porch in Portland’s SW hills)..As I recall the activity; steam & ash columns and the formation of the bulge, started in late March and continued, more or less continously until May 14, when, as I recall, activity ceased…Then four days later the Mountain blew…Is that a normal pattern for explosive eruptions??.

    Thanks for your answers to my previous questions….

  46. The “bent stick breaking” model would suggest that once a stressed area starts snapping layers of rock, the pressure on other layers is increased (1. they’re bearing more of the magma-containment load because the snapped layers aren’t any more; 2. they’re being hit by the snaps themselves), and they start breaking too, a cascade that ends when there are no more unsnapped layers.

    That is, the swarm’s end is not necessarily a good sign; it may mean that the entire “chimney” consists of breaks in rock layers, a weakness extending from surface to magma chamber.

    Another consequence of this model is that the upward pressure of the magma is likely to push this newly weakened area up faster than before, faster than the surrounding area, eventually displacing the north end of the lake with a protruding mound — unless the magma itself comes up through the breaks first.

    We may see another series of quakes from further fault lines developing, radially from the chimney, and/or in a rough ring around it, as the weakened area is broken apart and away from the surrounding caldera-lid. The “chimney” will be stretched open as these chunks move away from each other.

    Somewhere along that process, we may also hear harmonics from upward-flowing lava. (It depends on whether and how much the magma has cooled and “gelled” directly below the chimney.)

    This, need I say it, is entirely hypothetical. I hope.

  47. These events are so localized that the “bent stick” analogy doesn’t pan out. It could be pressure induced by a narrow column of magma rising from the chamber, (I can’t find the 3D chamber map right now but there does seem to be some “ears” on the chamber). This would have to be a relatively rapid intrusion to create such a sequence of quakes though. The rate of energy transfer suggests burps of steam rising through fractured rock and then reaching blockages where they cause radial fracturing. The source could easily be water leaking into the chamber where it flashes into burps, (likely some head space where gases have accumulated above the magma pool).

  48. You are welcome to read our latest post, “Scientists, bloggers, comment on Yellowstone’s supervolcano,” at

    Our log cabin/news office is 60-70 miles west of Yellowstone Lake, as the bald eagle flies. We are in the Island Park Caldera.

  49. KYAGB: “These events are so localized that the “bent stick” analogy doesn’t pan out.”

    The center of the “bend” is that localized. That 3D map shows a mound growing under the north end of Yellowstone Lake, and the ground moving away from it in all directions.

    One would expect that to be the xy point of greatest stress on rock layers.

    And once one layer breaks, it’s not surprising that even more stress would apply to the layers above and below that break.

    The breaks needn’t occur in an orderly progression from bottom to top or top to bottom. Just whichever layer reaches its breaking point first, second, etc.

    And the quake chart doesn’t show an orderly progression. There’s no overall “rising” or “falling” pattern to the sequence of depths.

    (If we had seen such a pattern — e.g. quakes measured at 7km, 6km, 5km, 4km, 3km… — it’d be hard not to conclude that something was moving upward.)

    The “stick” stops breaking when everything that can break has. And the quake swarm seems to have stopped. Why would steam percolation stop? Or magma movement?

    I’m by no means committed to this hypothesis, but I don’t see a disproof yet.

  50. The greater area rising is much too large to only break strata in a 2 mi radius.
    If there were a dyke intruding directly below the quake area, you might be correct, but I’d expect an orderly succession of fractures in elevation from low to high and these quakes jump elevations.
    The reason percolation could stop is loss of steam energy and condensation back into water. Only very superheated steam under these geologic pressures would remain gaseous and as it dissipated energy it would substantially reduce volume.

  51. Here’s a visualization. A small gas pocket formed at a high point in the chamber. The initiating event was a fracture from gas pressure, releasing some pressure that let in pressurized water from the fractured structure above. Water is leaking in, relatively slowly, creating high temperature steam as it hits the magma so that steam pressure eventually causes burps of steam to overcome the pressurized water inflow. The burps of high temperature steam rise through fractures, cooling as it rises, but some pockets accumulate at blockages to create enough pressure to cause these low intensity EQs. The expended energy allows the steam to cool, particularly at shallower/cooler depths, and return to a liquid state.

  52. The real problem is that this is a continuing process, unless magma/mineral deposition plugs the cracks, that could substantially weaken all strata above the chamber and possibly so fracture the chamber ceiling as to chew its way close enough to the surface to erupt. Once an eruption occurs, pressure release could cause explosive decompression, (read supereruption), if the release isn’t slow enough to allow gas pressure equalization in the Chamber/magma.

  53. KYAGB: “The greater area rising is much too large to only break strata in a 2 mi radius.”

    Rising, in itself, wasn’t the issue; bending was.

    “The greater area rising” isn’t bending (and thereby being stretched) as much as the center of the mound — again see that 3D map.

    Bend a long stick or branch over your knee, with both hands well to the sides.

    The break won’t occur next to your hands, or between your hands and your knee, but around the bending point over your knee — where an ant’s path along the stick changes from “up slope” to “down slope”.

    The individual fibers may snap to either side of the center point, simply because they’re weaker there; but the snaps will cluster around that center point, because that’s where the stress is.

  54. But then again you have a sequential fracturing from the top down and creation of fault lines like those that appear over the two rising domes over a much larger area. These events are totally different suggesting a chimney effect over an point energy source that has the ability to transmit energy to various elevations of strata above.

  55. Just three wee quakes so far today. Two were not near the dome. Some media are saying the swarm is over. The geos aren’t sure yet. It’s like deciding when to call an election.

  56. Recent info from a doctoral student at U of U suggest you may be closer Pyre. These are apparently “double-coupled events” indicating rock on rock movement without the presence of fluids. Although they know that they could use more data from advanced/more sensor systems and computational assets, they don’t feel any urgency

  57. Just had an extended call with top volcanologist in USGS and got the same lack of urgency rap, quibling over 4 new seimographs to double resoultion at the North end of the Lake and a new bathymetric survey by Lisa Morgan. The discussion with U of U exposed a decided lack of resolution to determine strata integrety or any dykes extruding from the top of the chamber.

  58. To give you an idea of how inane this conversation was, part of it centered around the best predictor circumstances given that no one’s seen a supervolcano go off, which he then suggested as being analogous to the recent Chilean eruption that only took 3 weeks to develop. I retorted that he’s already pissed away a week for deployment of sensors and he wasn’t phased.

  59. While we agreed that a super eruption could only be equated in effect to another Chixalub impact he wouldn’t budge beyond agreeing to discuss this with Lowenstern over the next week and agreed to revisiting the conversation in a week. The point I was stessing is that the increased probability due to recent events X the potential devastating outcome should yeild a product that establishes the need to deploy the full 9 yards of advanced sensors for analysis of risk and predictive capability. All I got was we’ll talk about it.

  60. @Calderagirl
    The automated system only posts relatively stong quakes and where they can’t define the location of smaller ones, U of U doesn’t post them, so don’t be fooled by the postings as there could be all kinds of low level activity that doesn’t get posted. Watch the seismographs instead and the most important being Lake, Mary Lake and Madison River that are showing continued activity in the same area. The question is whether this chimney will fail to contain magma so continuing fracturing could portend eventual failure even if it is only caused by low level quakes. It may also indicate continuing intrusion of a magmatic dyke below or degradation of the chimney by hdrothermal activity but the U of U conversation tends to indicate the former or Pyre’s hypothesis.

  61. Good article but call them back and ask about the sensor sensitivity because I was told they can’t resolve chamber deformations <1 km. They don't see deformations under the Lake unless they do another bathymetric survey, and ven though the Lake is still not frozen, they refused to send Lisa Morgan out to survey the area. There's no camera or temperature sensors on the Lake either. These are all precursor indicators that they refuse to monitor. I guess this "ignorance is bliss" attitude allows them to say that they don't see any other eruption indicators.

  62. Most of the post was cut off… what I said was that they can only claim lack of concurrent eruption indicators because they’re not looking for them. There’s no camera on the Lake to see gas emmisions. There’s no temperature sensors to see increases. They won’t do a bathymetric survey to compare to the 2003 survey to detect Lake bed deformations. Their seismographs are too dispersed to resolve magma chamber deformations <1 km or to discern fracturing in the chimney created by the quakes. Ignorance necessarily predicts no threat.

  63. The quakes were not hydrothermal as first thought. Quake analysis at U of U shows “double-coupled signatures” meaning there was no fluid involved and only rock on rock sliding. Look at the swarm dimentions and Lake bathymetry, particularly the Inflated Plain discovered in 2003. The Lake may actually be a volcanic crater with the swarm zone delineating the old chimney that is being uplifted by expansion of the magma chamber below. Their sensors don’t have enough resolution to definitively detect these features and I’m challenging USGS to get better/more seismic instrumentation, aerial optic and IR observation and bathymetric surveys. Please help.

  64. I have found the spot of the next Super-eruption. It is the Huckleberry Ridge Tuff Fault.The first caldera. It runs through the middle of the lake, precisely where the swarm began. On top of the fault is the West Thumb lava flow. This cap has fractured. The first caldera rim also intersects with the Sour Creek Dome. The next eruption will begin just north of the Lake along the Huckleberry Ridge Tuff and Sour Creek fissures.The Elephant Back fissures also intersect the original caldera. The fault under the lake will allow water to enter the subterranean aquafiers. This will lead to the collapse of the geyer systems which will trap steam on top of the chamber. The system will be in a cascade once the process begins. Link to my small scale experiment to see what will happen. It will happen soon. In fact it may have already started.

  65. Robin: “the spot of the next Super-eruption” is almost a contradiction in terms.

    If the eruption is that localized, it would be an ordinary volcano.

    What makes the Super-volcano “super” is that the whole caldera erupts, not a little “chimney”. Some 2/3 of Yellowstone, to a depth of 15 miles or so, would be sent skyward in a matter of seconds.

    What’s happily unlikely about that is that the magma chamber seems to have mostly cooled past that point — except for the new “pancake”-shaped magma in the middle of the chamber.

  66. The next caldera-scale eruption *should* be somewhat to the northeast of the last one, but things don’t always work the way they *should* in the geological world we live in.

  67. Dear Pyre,
    Sorry for the confusion. To clearify, I have found the precise location of where the next Super-eruption will begin. The next Super-eruption will begin along the Huckleberry Ridge Tuff where it intersects with the Sour Creek Dome.

  68. “Scientists know it as the deadliest volcano on Earth. You know it…as Yellowstone.” ? Supervolcano docudrama, Discovery Channel, 2005

    YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK ? Small earthquakes in the Yellowstone Lake area could alter the park?s thermal features, University of Utah scientists said this week. There have been more than 500 earthquakes in a nearly two week period that began on Saturday, December 27.

    Read here:

  69. Has anyone here thought to check out the Bio-Sensitive site to see what they are reporting? They feel what the planet is doing, and are shockingly accurate. Do a search on Charlotte King, that’s her website.

    I will go check it out and see what she says, we are friends.


  70. Small earthquakes in the Yellowstone area have been on the increase again recently, 02/01/09. Also there are continuing harmonic tremors in several places. With that said there are many questions. Deeper tremors gradually rising would be of concern. What is the density of the rock below? Low density would possibly indicate lava. Also important would be the earth plate sliding towards the East. This may modify greatly a the power of an erruption. Best case senerio would be that after and IF an explosion happens it would be good to know if this plate is blocking a lot of lava flow. When will it explode? Nobody knows except maybe Al Gore who would attribute anything bad to global warming and our fault. Then with all the C02 kicking out Al could tell us how bad we humans are because if you fly, drive, breathe you are adding C02. You can get a repreve if you buy some of the carbon credits he sells so he can turn around and use that money to build another coal fired utility in China.

  71. Hey people, how about core samples being taken all around Yellowstone for a thousand miles? It could determine who gets how much the next time. I live in Denver and am about to retire from the City. Would Yellowstone screw up my retirement? If so, How badly?

  72. Last time the big boy went off estimates are that well above half of all life on earth was destroyed. Australia is “out of the immediate danger zone”, but virtually nowhere is safe. Being closer may in the final analysis ( and I do mean FINAL ) be better. The only good thing is you won’t have to hear about man made global warming anymore.

  73. and mike: No ill effects? I wouldn’t go that far. I like Gibbon’s way of putting it, it’s a little like chewing tobacco vs smoking. It’s still tobacco. Chewing cocaine vs smoking or snorting it, it’s still cocaine. You’re going to get much lower doses of it, of course, but the compound is still there, and addiction is still a problem.

  74. What most are not adding into this equation is that Yellowstone has already erupted, thus forming wnat we now see, thousands of years later. This may happen again, in a similar fashion, or greater, but chances are, not likely.

    Thank Godness we are in a wonderful place called Eartha Oceano, incubating us as we journey along. Major meteors struck so long ago, ocean were formed, continents split apart, and aside from, if we mess things up entirely, we may be fortunate to set up a system of alarms (worldwide) to avert future ‘major’ disasters.

  75. My sister & i have been working on a theory that earthquakes & volcanic eruptions (though the link is not always agreed to in scientific communities) are somewhat predictable similar to representations of the earth’s plates on a partially inflated balloon. If we are even close to correct, with the ongoing eruptions in Hawaii as well as else where, & with the larger than normal earthquakes in Haiti & Chili, there should be the following probable line-up: Earthquake or eruption in the Italian region, moderate earthquake in around the middle east, followed by a brief slow-down in tremblors in the Yellow stone region after which a build up of pressure will result in magma release from yellow stone itself? As my sister & I are NOT scientists (just people who like to bounce ideas back & forth) this has no basis in research. Simply 30+ years of following these things in the news.

  76. The dinasours were killed last time yellow stone blew up. geologist can confirm this by drilling to 3500 feet and taking samples, just ask any oil man. and most of the park is off limits because the ground is too hot. this super volcano will go off in the next 50 years. I am sure that pressure tests can predict the eruption, unfortunatly there is nothing you can do about it. a possibility that if you drill a thousand holes you could prolong the big bang but you could also provoke it because of its instability. I believe that yellowstone is the planets biological clock like any living thing shits, planet earth is constapated and when she shits everybodies going to be covered in it . good luck god bless and buy some toilet paper O Shit

  77. Do you know anything about H1N1 vaccination campaign and the conspiration theory?
    About the Yellowstone Volcano and the Eyjafjallajoekul:
    Any correlation between the particle accelerator and these eruptions?

  78. Ok from Idho to walla walla along the hwy 12, have notist the wavering cracking of these rolling molehills of change. being sensitive to the vibrations it got me wondering where all this activit is coming from and how someone can wrk with me inthese areas of interest.

  79. In June of 2011 people in Windsor Ontario were being bothered by a humming noise coming from beneath the earth. Government agencies have been reluctant so far to fully investigate the matter. Apparently, the environmental agency who intially looked into the matter said the noise did not seem to be of an industrial nature, so what could be causing it?

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