Tuesday, January 13, 2009

We All Gonna Die. Or At Least Roll Our Eyes

First of all, I’d like it known I am not a geologist. Nor a hydrologist. Nor a volcanologist. Like Pete Venkman, I never studied. I do want it known, however, that these people who insist Yellowstone National Park is on the verge of some cataclysmic volcanic eruption ought to admit to the same things I’ve just admitted to and stop spewing their pseudo-science, ludicrous predictions, and disaster-mongering into the Intertubes.

And the media need to stop enabling these people by quoting them – anonymously – in order to “balance” their stories. On this I can speak with some authority, as in my previous life, I spent ten years as a newspaper reporter, five years as an editor. And what happens in this AP story is ludicrous.

"To those of us who have been following these events, we know that something is
brewing, especially considering that Yellowstone is over 40,000 years overdue
for a major eruption," warned a posting on the online disaster forum
This is one of two “observers” this AP piece quotes as being concerned about an “imminent” eruption at Yellowstone. No names. No qualifications offered, but I’m sure a site like Armageddononline attracts only the finest, most qualified individuals. The other is just as bad:

Another Web site contained a page entitled "Yellowstone Warning" that encouraged
"everyone to leave Yellowstone National Park for 100 miles around the volcano
caldera because of the danger in poisonous gasses that can escape from the
hundreds of recent earthquakes." That site, which carried the U.S. Geological
Survey logo, has since been taken down.
Yes, maybe the AP was suffering with a paucity of citable experts willing to express dire prediction. Professionally, I’ve always taken this as a sign that there is no dire prediction to be made.

Overdue library books are much more of a menace than overdue volcanic eruptions, because overdue library books are fixed in time with fees that increase with the passing of each day. To claim that Yellowstone is “overdue” for an eruption lays bare basic ignorance about statistics and causality. The argument is, of course, that, on average, Yellowstone has seen cataclysmic eruptions about every 600,000 years. Mongers point out that Yellowstone’s last eruption occurred 640,000 years ago, thus laying claim to the “fact” that an eruption is overdue. That is so very wrong.

Mother Nature does not punch a time clock nor adhere to set schedules on the time scale proposed here. The Yellowstone area – the area, not the park itself – has seen three large eruptions in the past 2.1 million years, true, but they did not occur with punch-clock regularity. About 2.1 million years ago, an eruption created Idaho’s Island Park Caldera. The second occurred about 1.3 million years ago, creating (in Idaho again) the Henry’s Fork Caldera, nested inside the previous caldera (the photo at the top of this blog shows Idaho's Upper Mesa Falls, which tumbles down from the lip of the Henry's Fork Caldera. I have more pictures of Yellowstone and Idaho's volcanic past online at www.uncharted.net). The Yellowstone Caldera was created in an eruption about 640,000 years ago. That makes it about 800,000 years between the first and second eruptions, and about 660,000 years between the second and third eruptions. But statistically, recording the interval between two eruptions and using that average to predict a third is an ignorant thing to do. (These figures also demonstrate how the fearmongers are using the wrong average for their predictions. My calculator shows an average of 730,000 years between eruptions. But since averages don’t mean much at all in this equation, why argue?)

Then there are the earthquake claims – most of the current agitation comes from the fact that a swarm of about 900 earthquakes occurred in the Yellowstone Lake area in the park at the end of 2008 and into the first week of 2009. Many point to this earthquake swarm as evidence of an impending eruption.

Where were they, you’ve got to wonder, in 1985, when more than 3,000 earthquakes occurred in the park over several months, or any of the other 70 times smaller swarms of earthquakes were recorded in the park between 1983 and 2008? Probably out there, somewhere, but in these pre-Internet times, they had a harder time finding a public voice, and an audience willing to soak up their crapola.

The BBC film “Supervolcano” doesn’t help the effort much, either. I’ve seen it. It’s fine drama. But the emphasis here should be on drama (never mind that when they show “Highway 20, the major link between West Yellowstone and Idaho Falls at a standstill” as people evacuate the area, the images shown aren’t anything like the rural area that stretch of highway passes through). How do I know this? I live there. Grew up in Idaho Falls and currently live in Sugar City, about 108 miles southwest of Old Faithful, by that very same Highway 20.

But you just don’t make a sexy disaster movie out of the truth, which is this (quoting from the same AP piece I malign; at least the author got this part right):

Park geologist Hank Heasler said the odds of a cataclysmic eruption at
Yellowstone any time soon are astonishingly remote - about the same as a large
meteorite hitting the Earth. The last such eruption occurred 640,000 years ago.
The last eruption of any kind at Yellowstone was a much smaller lava flow about
70,000 years ago.

"Statistically, it would be surprising to see an eruption the next
hundred years," Lowenstern said.

The film does show the more likely occurrence:

Much more likely, he said, would be a hydrothermal explosion in which
underground water encounters a hot spot and blasts through the surface. Small
hydrothermal explosions producing craters a few feet wide occur in Yellowstone
perhaps once or twice a year. Large hydrothermal explosions leaving craters the
size of a football field occur every 200 years or so, according to a 2007 paper
co-authored by Heasler, Lowenstern and others.

But again, why blow up part of the park as big as a football field if you can blow up the entire park and make for a really exciting TV movie, eh? Oh well.

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