Yellowstone geologist talks threat of supervolcano eruption


WEST YELLOWSTONE, Mont. - The supervolcano beneath Yellowstone National Park has received national attention over the past few weeks after The New York Times published an Arizona State University graduate student's research.

The research found activity heated up the volcano's magma just decades before its last eruption. Once it was published a firestorm of articles followed suit stating the supervolcano may erupt sooner than expected.

The coverage even reached Canada. Park visitor and Canadian resident Jacquie Ringstad told NBC Montana her friends warned her not to come after seeing the headlines.

"When we decided to come down here we were talking to some people," Ringstad said. "One of the fellas was like 'You can't go to Yellowstone, there's this big volcano underneath it and it's going to blow up!'"

Park geologist Jeff Hungerford said you shouldn't read into it.

"The volcano is not going to erupt any time soon; however, we definitely have stories saying otherwise," Hungerford said. "They usually don't spin them in the right direction."

The potential for destruction is massive, though, Hungerford said. He told NBC Montana the caldera holds enough energy to create a volcanic winter.

"A lot of ash would be released into the air, and it would affect the climate cycles of the earth," Hungerford said.

When discussing the supervolcano, Mount St. Helens is often brought up. It erupted nearly 40 years ago. Its devastation wasn't just contained to Washington state. Winds blew 520 million tons of ash throughout the country, reaching as far as 930 miles away. Fifty-seven people died.

Scientists say a supervolcano eruption would likely be 2,500 times larger than that of Mount St. Helens.

"The chances of that happening are infinitesimal, and we are not going to see anything like a super eruption in our lifetime," Hungerford said.

The supervolcano's last large eruption was recorded 631,000 years ago, according to Michael Poland, scientist-in-charge of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory. The observatory, made up of eight organizations, is responsible for monitoring the volcano.

Seismologist Mike Stickney, with the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology, told NBC Montana it's why the caldera is unlike any other.

"The Yellowstone area is the most monitored volcanic system in the world," Stickney said.

ungerford told NBC Montana the observatory mainly watches out for activity like seismicity, gas emissions and ground swelling to determine if an eruption is imminent.

"Right now everything that tells us about volcanic activity is at a normal level," Hungerford said.

Poland said all of those signs have stayed at normal levels since the USGS adopted its alert system in 2005. He told NBC Montana the alert system has never dipped below normal in its 12 years.

The caldera, which covers 1,350 square miles, spans beneath an area that includes Old Faithful and the Yellowstone River. Though it is considerably large, Hungerford said that doesn't mean the same goes for its next eruption. He told NBC Montana it would likely be a small lava flow.

In any case, Stickney said there will be plenty of warning before its next eruption.

"We would likely see years to decades of anomalous activity at Yellowstone before any kind of a significant eruption," Stickney said.

For now, according to Hungerford, guests like Ringstad can take in the park and its geothermal features created by the last supervolcano eruption without worry.

With a record number of visitors in 2016 the caldera doesn't seem to be driving anyone away.

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