One month after we reported that fears of an eruption at the Yellowstone supervolcano continue to grow following the first eruption of the world’s largest active geyser for the first time since 2014, overnight Reuters reported of continued “unusual eruptions” at the same location after said giant geyser erupted no less three times in the past six weeks, including once this week.
The good news, according to geologists, is that while the pattern is “unusual” it is not indicative of a more destructive volcanic eruption brewing beneath Wyoming.
The bad news is that with geological events in Yellowstone increasingly described by even the most “reputable” mainstream media and scholars as “unusual”, the broader public is having trouble believing that everything is just normal.
This is what happened: Steamboat Geyser, which can shoot water as high as 300 feet (91 meters) into the air, erupted on March 15, April 19 and on Friday.
As the Bozeman Daily Chronicle adds, the Steamboat Geyser eruption on Friday was reported by a park visitor and was estimated to have begun at 6:30 am; that person was likely the only one who witnessed it firsthand, since boardwalks leading to area are closed due to high snowfall notes Gizmodo.
Why is this unusual? Because the last time it erupted three times in a year was in 2003, the U.S. Geological Survey’s Yellowstone Volcano Observatory said. Also notable: the last time it erupted prior to March was more than three years ago in September 2014.
While this year’s eruptions have (so far) been smaller than a usual Steamboat eruption, the two in April were about 10 times larger than an eruption at the park’s famed Old Faithful Geyser in terms on the amount of water discharged, geologists quoted by Reuters said.
Predictably, local scientists promptly emerged from their labs to ease the public’s worries that a major Yellowstone eruption could be imminent: “There is nothing to indicate that any sort of volcanic eruption is imminent,” Michael Poland, the scientist in charge for the observatory, told Reuters in an email.
And yet, despite the soothing words, geologists have not been able to pinpoint a reason for the latest series of eruptions, which they say could indicate a thermal disturbance in the geyser basin, or that Steamboat may be having smaller eruptions instead of one large.
Of course, it could be simply “randomness”:
Since most geysers do not erupt on a regular schedule, “it might just reflect the randomness of geysers,” Poland said.
Only Waimangu Geyser in New Zealand has rocketed to greater heights than Steamboat, but not for more than 100 years, the U.S. National Park Service said.
Why the bigger fears? Because as we report periodically, most recently last month, Yellowstone sits atop a supervolcano that created a massive crater; its plateau hosts the world’s most diverse and expansive continental hydrothermal systems, including the multicolored springs, mudpots and geysers for which the park is known.
Whatever the cause for the “unusual eruptions” at Steamboat, there is no need to panic just yet: what would be far more worrying would be the water in the hydrothermal systems drying up, which could indicate that the super hot magma deep below was making its way to the surface.
“Yellowstone hasn’t had a volcanic eruption for 70,000 years! Geysers erupt all the time,” said Jake Lowenstern, a USGS research geologist who specializes in volcanoes.
And while it has indeed been 70,000 years since the last major lava event in Yellowstone, the region is still very much active and poses the potential to erupt at some point in the future, perhaps disastrously: as Washington Post reported last week, an event in Yellowstone could be thousands of times more powerful than the Mount St. Helens explosion in 1980; the United States Geological Survey predicts that a sufficiently powerful eruption, while unlikely, would leave much of the northern Rockies buried in feet of ash. Lava flows could cover a radius up to 30 or 40 miles in diameter, with “disastrous” accumulations of 10 or more centimeters in a radius of up to 500 miles.
That, of course, is the worst case scenario, and scientists tend to emphasize that even a moderate volcanic eruption there is unlikely to happen in our lifetimes, although one wonders if
central bankers scientists would ever say otherwise, knowing well that any statement out of the ordinary would prompt a mass panic and evacuation.
Meanwhile, despite still being years away from predicting future eruptions, scientists at the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory monitoring arrays would probably detect “sudden or strong movements or shifts in heat that would indicate increasing activity,” the National Park Service writes, and that a “catastrophic” eruption would likely be preceded by weeks to years of warning signs. One only hopes said signs would made available to the general public.