A Life in a Year – 1st March, Yellowstone Park and a Super Volcano

Yellowstone was designated as a National Park on March 1st 1872 when President Ulysses S Grant signed a new law ordering ‘the tract of land lying near the headwaters of the Yellowstone River to be set apart as a public park’ and in so doing Yellowstone became the first National Park in the USA and indeed the world.

We entered at the picturesque east entrance and drove through an area of coniferous forest badly scarred by the fire damage of 1988, which had burned down a third of Yellowstone’s forests.  After that we climbed the Absoroka Mountains to the Sylvan Pass and then descended swiftly towards Yellowstone and the largest mountain lake in North America.

Stops to admire the views came frequently as you might imagine and the scenery was truly superb.  Next we turned north towards Tower Canyon passing on the way the sulphur cauldron and the mud volcano and stopping for a while at Canyon Village and taking the steep walk to the lookout point at Inspiration Point for great views of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, a thousand feet below.  Next we went on to Tower junction and the high falls tumbling spectacularly one hundred and thirty feet into Tower Creek below.  Finally we drove over the Blacktail Deer Plateau and stopped for a longer time at Mammoth Hot Springs.

The park is sensationally beautiful with stately snow capped peaks, lush meadows with herds of grazing bison, rivers and tumbling streams, a magnificent sky blue lake and bounteous wildlife.  But Yellowstone is dangerous because it is a super volcano called a caldera (which is Latin for cauldron) that are so explosive that they just burst open and blow everything away in one almighty blast of truly biblical proportions.

And this event would be so huge that it is the reason why previous eruptions have not left behind a classic volcanic mountain, like say Vesuvius or Mount Etna.  The Yellowstone caldera measures nine thousand square kilometers and the crater is almost sixty-five kilometers across, so as you can probably imagine that would have been one hell of an explosion!

The main attraction at Mammoth Hot Springs were the terraces where underground heat, water, limestone, and rock fracture combine to create multi coloured terraces created by micro-organisms and living bacteria that create beautiful shades of oranges, pinks, yellows, greens, and browns. The springs are constantly changing because as formations grow water is forced to flow in different directions and all of that creates a kaleidoscopic display.  We stayed here long enough to walk around the boiling mud pits hissing and spitting like an old steam engine and to bump into a herd of wild elk feeding on the lush autumn grass.

Yellowstone sits on top of a reservoir of molten rock about two hundred kilometers below the surface of the earth and rises here close to the surface and is the reason for all of the geysers, bubbling mud pots and hot springs that are scattered liberally around the park.  The magma chamber is about sixty kilometres across and about twelve kilometres thick so that is something to bear in mind when you are wandering about leisurely admiring the scenery.

If this thing were to go off you would hear the bang all the way to the North Pole!  Luckily these super volcanoes don’t go off very often, the last time was six hundred and thirty thousand years ago, but if it did explode you would definitely want to stand well back because one thing to be sure is that nothing for thousands of miles around would survive.

Scientists estimate that Yellowstone blows every six hundred thousand years so by my calculation the next one is well overdue!  The last super volcano eruption on earth was seventy four thousand years ago in northern Sumatra and that produced an enormous blast and a long period of volcanic winter that almost destroyed the emerging human race.  It is absolutely certain that a Yellowstone explosion could completely obliterate the world as we know it to such an extent that we certainly wouldn’t have to worry about climate change or Saturday’s lottery result ever again.

In addition to the risk of the volcano there are other natural things that also present constant danger.  There are on average about one thousand earthquakes a year, most are too small to notice but they are always there, rock falls are a constant danger because of all of the seismic activity forever rearranging the geological furniture as it were and then there is always the chance that there may be a serious explosion that would be curtains for anyone standing close by.  Bearing all that in mind it is probably good advice therefore not to go poking around the surface with a big stick!

I mention all this because today we stopped off to see the most well-known and reliable geyser in the park.  Old Faithful is a popular tourist spot where the famous geyser erupts promptly every seventy minutes or so and there are grandstands arranged an appropriate distance away from the boiling steam for the visitors to sit and admire the spectacle.  An eruption can shoot anything from 3,700 to 8,400 gallons of boiling water to a height of fifty five metres and can last from one to five minutes.

The average height of an eruption is forty four metres and that’s about the equivalent of about ten London double decker busses.  Previously the most famous geyser in the park was Excelsior, which used to erupt regularly to a height of a hundred metres but in 1888 it just stopped and didn’t erupt again for a hundred years.  One day Old Faithful will no doubt just stop in exactly the same way.  The biggest geyser in the park and indeed the world is the Steamboat geyser which blows to a height of one hundred and twenty metres but this spectacle is most infrequent and you really wouldn’t want to sit waiting for it because that could waste more than half of your life.

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