December 2001 – Wyoming Ghost Towns
Is Yellowstone National Park North America’s Pompeii?
Probable Absaroka volcanic rock found on Beaver Divide near
Have world politics discouraged your travels? Is Afghanistan causing the jitters? Do you Lysol odd-looking mail? Does your watch dial glow when near a co-traveller’s on-board luggage?
Well, take heart fellow globetrotters. Yes, the world’s a scary place – but let’s put it in perspective, shall we? After all, things could be worse. Even though the human race seems poised for self-annihilation, be calmed that larger natural forces could also wipe us out in a blinding flash.
So, why worry about pesky Homo sapiens? Instead, consider Yellowstone National Park’s super-volcano which has destroyed, and could again destroy much of North America – if not the entire planet.
But wait. Did he say Yellowstone, as in good ol’ down home Wyoming, USA? You know, the land of cuddly grizzly bears and majestic geysers? Yup, that’s right. And while hiking the park’s back country recently, I learned the surprising history of its volatile geology, which features a gigantic magma plume that scientists coyly call a “hot spot,” or, better yet, “The Beast.”
This mysterious story came to light last August while I sipped a sud and read some park pamphlets after trudging 18 miles to Douglas Knob near Shoshone Lake, just south of the Old Faithful geyser.
“You Are In A Volcano!” the park’s back country literature said in bold exclamatory type. “In Yellowstone, you are standing in one of the world’s largest active volcanoes. While most of the world’s volcanoes are found in areas near the tectonic plate boundaries, the Yellowstone volcano is the result of heat and molten rock rising as a hotspot.”
Hmmm…. “Important safety tip,” I thought as my eyes glazed a little. “Guess that explains the geyser steam, but is this monster really gonna blow? If so, when?!”
Douglas Knob in August, 2001. The hill-like Knob consists of
On that the park pamphlet, Yellowstone Today Summer 2001, was less clear. However, it did provide historical data that made me think massive, continent-bashing explosions here might occur regularly, say roughly every 600,000 years. So, since the last one was 640,000 years ago, you get the picture.
Time to strike camp? High-tail for home and cram the basement with canned goods? Well, you never know, but don’t panic yet. Scientists tend to doubt a major, near-future event. Nevertheless, concern has increased, and what’s fascinating is that it’s spreading from noted scientific journals to the popular press.
For instance, a Ufoheaven.com article called “New Yellowstone Eruption Would Dwarf Mount St. Helen’s” quotes respected U.S. Geological Survey geologist Robert Christiansen as saying “‘We need to be prepared.'”
Ufoheaven adds that “Christiansen doubts the likelihood of another cataclysmic eruption any time soon but he doesn’t rule out something smaller. Earthquakes, rock slides and steam explosions from geyser basins are all possible. A blowout on the scale of Mount St. Helens is conceivable.”
Probable “desk sized” Absaroka boulder on Beaver Divide. Ski Poles
for scale. Location courtesy J. David Love.
But whatever might happen in what Christiansen calls “The Beast” at Yellowstone, UFO/conspiracy zines are not alone in their reporting. In fact, the park itself in a May 14, 2001 press release announced establishment of “The Yellowstone Volcano Observatory,” that features a variety of ground and satellite remote-sensing gizmos which keep an eye on the big kahuna. At the observatory’s helm is, guess who, Dr. Robert L. Christiansen, who coordinates the effort with University of Utah geologist Dr. Robert B. Smith.
Together, these scientists monitor current geologic conditions that resulted after “cataclysmic explosive eruptions 2 million, 1.3 million, and 640 thousand years ago ejected huge volumes of molten rock and formed large overlapping elliptical depressions called calderas. The youngest caldera in the park, about 50 miles long and 30 miles wide, has been buried by the most recent [smaller] eruptions of thick lava flows between about 75,000 and 150,000 years ago,” the release says.
Here in Riverton, about 90 crow miles southeast of the park, you can see these explosive results when eyeing northwest to the Absaroka Mountain’s volcanic plateau. That’s where “The Beast” sleeps – cradled on the northern horizon in Absaroka’s jagged 12,000-ft. (3,658 meters) escarpment, which represents even older and more massive cataclysms.
“That was when all hell broke lose,” says Laramie, Wyoming USGS geologist J. David Love, who has extensively studied the plateau. From the University of Wyoming by phone Love told me that while the Absaroka event wasn’t geologically related to the “hot spot,” it still threw “desk-sized” boulders 90 or more miles to the Riverton area.
He says that occurred 40 or so million years ago, and judging from probable Absaroka rocks I’ve found near here recently, it gives you an inkling of how powerful super-volcanoes such as the Yellowstone “Beast” or the now inactive Absarokas are.
In the “hot spot’s” case, scientists generally agree that the largest park-area event 2 million years ago was 2,400 times greater than 1980s Mt. Helen’s eruption in Washington state, USA. Subsequent Yellowstone blasts decreased in size but, as geologists say, they “made St. Helen’s look like a sneeze.” In fact, “The Beast’s” anger was so great that thick volcanic ejecta layers ended up in Northern Mexico and Louisiana, USA.
Needless to say, a similar event in a densely populated world could have catastrophic results via disrupted weather patterns, acid rain, global cooling – you know, all that neat Mad Max apocalyptic stuff. But as the Wyoming Geologic Survey’s Jim Case said from Laramie, “there’s really not much we can do to stop it if it happens.”
Oh well. At least there’s one consolation. These forces are larger than anything the Bin Ladens and kitchen-sink nuke scientists of this world can produce. So from that standpoint I feel oddly secure.
Early radar image of Yellowstone Park volcanism taken in 1968. Courtesy of USGS.
To find Douglas Knob and Yellowstone National Park’s Pitchstone Plateau, access topozone.com and type in “UTM 12 512145E 4906508N” (without quotation marks).
One of the Absaroka plateau’s taller mountains, the Washakie Needles, is at UTM 12 644876E 4845182N. Height is in meters. The Riverton area Absaroka boulders are at UTM 12 728696E 4725680N, approximately.