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Yellowstone Earthquakes and the Importance of Science

Posted by dystressed on December 30, 2008

Earthquakes have been swarming in Yellowstone. The significance? Possible future volcanic activity. Though not an immediate threat, this is a good illustration of why we need good, rational science.

…[T]he Yellowstone Caldera, formed in a giant volcanic eruption 640,000 years ago that blasted 240 cubic miles (1,000 km3) of molten rock (magma) into the atmosphere-more than 1,000 times the volume erupted at Mount St. Helens in 1980. Later eruptions largely filled the caldera and pushed up two resurgent domes within it—the Sour Creek and Mallard Lake Domes. No actual volcanic eruption has occurred in the Yellowstone region for about 70,000 years. [USGS Fact Sheet 100-03]

Get that picture? 240 CUBIC MILES of molten rock. That’s 5,280 feet by 5,280 feet by 5,280 feet. Of molten rock. Honey, this ain’t a barbecue, it’s the apocalypse.

According to a section on the PBS NOVA website “Mystery of the Mega Volcano,” that would mean as much as a third of the U.S. would be uninhabitable (and no one would probably want to live in the rest). More than that, other mega volcanoes in history are believed to have brought on Ice Age(s). Well that’s comforting. At least we wouldn’t totally screw up the planet all by ourselves, we can blame the mega volcano that will kill millions of people and make life on earth a literal hell.

Now I’m not out to preach for reckless hedonism in the face of possible disaster. I would rather you take away a desire to learn more about what science can and should do to prepare us for this. In fact, earthquakes are not new to Yellowstone, but they are scary when they happen in a “swarm.” Theories abound as to whether the next Yellowstone eruption would be as big as the formative eruption 640,000 years ago, but an eruption of some magnitude could be coming around the corner.

The Yellowstone Volcano Observatory collects tremendous amounts of data to help monitor the caldera and keep watch for major eruption dangers. Though their jobs must be very uneventful most days, these people have to properly analyze the data and come up with risk reports which tell us what’s next.

Intelligent Designers take note: Humans aren’t designed to survive volcanoes. If the human race is to survive, we must teach good science. If you believe in an intelligent designer, that’s fine, but you cannot ignore the threat of destruction and wait for divine intervention. Please don’t stand in the way of real science.

This photograph shows a horizontal view of the 2 May 2000 eruption of Steamboat Geyser. Photograph courtesy of Tom Cawley, NPS.
This photograph shows a horizontal view of the 2 May 2000 eruption of Steamboat Geyser. Photograph courtesy of Tom Cawley, NPS.

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