As geologists look at the map created from data they’ve collected in Yellowstone National Park, one thing is clear. They’ve uncovered something incredibly unsettling below the Earth’s surface. The danger it poses could be world-changing, in fact. And it’s happening right beneath one of America’s most treasured attractions.
The researchers, from Britain’s Royal Holloway University, were interested in finding out what’s going on far below the surface of the Earth. Studying the planet’s depths, however, is no easy task. The researchers needed to get to the layer called the “upper mantle,” hundreds of miles beneath ground level. And this is a job that requires special equipment.
In order to examine such depths, however, traditional drilling methods just won’t cut it. Instead, the British researchers used a gigantic system of sensors. More than 500 vibration monitors, each reading the movement of the Earth, fed information back to the geologists. From there, though, the data had to be translated into a more easily comprehensible form.
So, using complex algorithms, the team turned that seismic data from the sensors into a map of the depths of our planet. And what they saw astonished them. Not only had a remarkable – and alarming – discovery appeared before their very eyes, but its location caused special concern. That’s because it completely encompassed one of the United States’ most beloved sites.
Having completed their research, the team was shocked to discover that their incredible find was located right underneath Yellowstone National Park. The map clearly showed the reserve was smack bang in the middle of a potential danger zone. And it’s all to do with a specific feature of the protected area.
But before we get into the danger zone, let’s first talk a little about the park itself. Created in 1872, its protection was formally enshrined by then-President Ulysses S. Grant. But its association with humans goes much further back than that. In fact, evidence of habitation from many thousands of years ago has been found within Yellowstone’s borders.
Tools made from obsidian – a mineral abundant throughout Yellowstone – dating back more than 10,000 years were discovered there in the 1950s. In total, around 1,000 such locations have been identified, which is testament to humanity’s relationship with the park over the millennia.
Yellowstone itself covers a whopping 3,500 square miles of Idaho, Wyoming and Montana. It was earliest such park in America, in fact, and may even be the world’s original government-protected public land. Moreover, since its inauguration, the area has become a haven for hundreds of animal and plants species, and is also famous for its geological features.
From mega-fauna and frogs to volcanoes and geysers, Yellowstone has a mind-boggling variety of natural wonders. Added in the enormous number of plants and spectacular trails and vistas, and it’s easy to see why the area was awarded World Heritage Status in the late-1970s. So, before we move on, let’s take a very quick trip through the park’s most famous features.
Both grizzly and black bears call Yellowstone home, which is very rare for the U.S. The park also boasts the biggest free-roaming, publicly owned bison herd in America. In addition, elk, deer, cougars, sheep and goats call be found there. And thanks to a government re-introduction program, even wolves roam the region.
And the list of amazing four-legged Yellowstone inhabitants doesn’t end there. Small populations of lynx, wolverines and mountain lions also wander within its borders. Residents of the winged variety include more than 300 bird types, such as bald eagles and the incredibly scarce whooping crane. Moreover, this biodiversity also extends to the park’s waterways.
The park is home to almost 20 separate fish species, among them the Yellowstone cutthroat trout. In addition, the boa prairie rattlesnake and the painted turtle are among the reptiles native to the area’s waterways. This amazing range of life, of course, also takes in the leafy and flowering kind.
Yellowstone’s 3,500 square miles is covered by more than 1,700 native tree and plant species, in fact. They include Rocky Mountain Douglas-fir, Engelmann spruce, willow and Quaking Aspen. Moreover, blooms such as the sand verbena are found nowhere other than the park. These are just a few of the area’s living wonders, of course. But now it’s time to move on to its most unique features.
The park has more hydrothermal features than anywhere else on the planet. These occur when water deep in the Earth becomes super-heated, in some cases to 400° F. Under incredible pressure, the liquid is forced through rock channels and out of holes in the Earth’s crust. This process creates geysers, hot springs and many other wonders found at Yellowstone.
In fact, more than 1,200 geysers have been active in the park at one time or another. Yellowstone is, of course, home to Old Faithful, probably the planet’s most well-known plume of water. And it also contains the biggest geyser on Earth. Known as Steamboat, it can shoot super-heated water in excess of 300 feet above ground. In addition, these incredible ejections can go on for more than half an hour.
Hydrothermal features are so plentiful at Yellowstone, in fact, that 50 per cent of the world’s geysers are situated there. And there’s a very good reason for that. The naturally occurring subterranean channels that allow water to escape into the park were most likely caused by the presence of magma, or molten rock, beneath the ground. That liquid rock is also a good indication there’s a volcano nearby.
Moreover, Yellowstone’s isn’t just any old volcano. The park contains what’s known as a super-volcano, capable of incredibly large eruptions. Its caldera – the depression left after its last explosion – is the continent’s biggest. Spanning an area 45 miles by more than 30 miles, the enormous crater is now dotted with lakes. The most spectacular of these is Grand Prismatic Spring, so-called for its rainbow-hued water.
Given all these natural wonders, then, it’s perhaps unsurprising that more than four million people head for the park every year. Indeed, Yellowstone is one of the must-see natural attractions in the United States. Thanks to its conservation and protection programs, the area is also a great place for scientific study.
A 1997 study that took place in the park concentrated on those hydrothermal features. The researchers from Penn State wanted to see if all the volcanic and geyser activity had any effect on the atmosphere. And this is because the gas released is carbon dioxide. Considered a greenhouse gas, rising CO2 levels are a leading contributor to climate change. And according to the Penn State team, Yellowstone emits more than 40 million tons of it every year.
In fact, those figures have led to calls for the park’s emissions to be added to global CO2 total. However, given that worldwide carbon dioxide emissions stand at around 10 billion ton annually, adding Yellowstone’s would seem but a drop in the ocean. That, however, could all change, according to a group of British geologists. They’ve discovered something alarming lurking underground, right below Yellowstone. And what they found is astonishing.
In fact, this subterranean discovery could, in the future, lead to climate change of a kind never seen before in human history. If the British geologists’ worst-case scenario comes to pass, the planet could see a decade-long nuclear winter. And that’s just the start. So, what on Earth could cause such a disaster? That’s a good question, except it’s what’s under the planet rather than what’s on it that’s causing concern.
The British researchers were studying the Earth’s upper mantle. As it’s so far down, the geologists had to use a network of sensors – the largest on the planet, no less – to monitor the planet’s vibrations. Team leader Dr. Sash Hier-Majumder explained their novel method to the Daily Express in 2017. He said, “It would be impossible for us to physically ‘see’ the Earth’s mantle.”
“Using this massive group of sensors we [then] paint a picture of [the upper mantle] using mathematical equations to interpret what’s beneath us,” the geologist continued. The resulting map revealed a grim situation below Yellowstone, however. And the park wasn’t the only area at risk from the discovery.
Stretching from Colorado in the east, northern California to the west, New Mexico to the south and as far north as the Canadian border, geologists discovered a gigantic lake of molten carbon beneath the United States. The liquid carbonate covers an area of around 700,000 square miles, equivalent to the area of Mexico.
How does an enormous lake of molten carbon even come into existence, though? And perhaps more importantly, why didn’t we know about it before? It’s easier to answer the latter question, so we’ll tackle that one first. Essentially, we don’t know a whole lot about the upper mantle. Extending up to 400 miles below the Earth’s surface, much of it is simply impossible for us to access directly, as we mentioned earlier. And that’s why Dr. Hier-Majumder’s team came up with their sensor method.
How that lake formed, however, is even more complicated than the geologists’ equations. The constant movement of tectonic plates – the gigantic pieces of rock that run underneath Earth’s continents – means that they often rub up against each other. This leads to a process known as subduction, where the edge of one plate is pushed underneath the other. And that’s a violent as it sounds.
This subduction exerts enormous pressures on the bottom plate, causing heat to build up and essentially melt the rock. That molten pool remains, it seems, trapped deep on the Earth, keeping within it extremely high levels of carbon dioxide. Small amounts will, over the centuries, make their way up to the surface through volcanic activity. Thankfully, though, any contribution to climate change would take a very long time to appear.
Ordinarily, this situation would be fine, then, as the part of the upper mantle that houses the lake is more than 200 miles below the Earth’s surface. But Yellowstone is no ordinary site. As we mentioned earlier, the park has the largest system of volcanoes in North America. And this, of course, includes the super-powerful caldera.
Now, the Yellowstone caldera has been dormant for around 70,000 years, and it last blew more than half a million years ago. The result of that eruption is the park’s now famous 1,500-square-mile depression. And it’s the combination of millions of tons of magma and an unpredictable, super-powerful volcano that’s causing the geologists’ alarm.
Even alone, an eruption from Yellowstone’s super-volcano would change the world’s climate for years. This is because it already sits on a huge deposit of magma that’s much closer to the surface than the upper mantle reservoir. According to an assessment published by How Stuff Works, if it blew, close to 90,000 people would instantly lose their lives. And the devastation wouldn’t end there.
The How Stuff Works piece also noted that an eruption from the park’s volcano would “spread a ten-foot layer of molten ash as far as 1,000 miles from the park.” In addition, the potential long-term effects have been compared by experts to those of nuclear warfare. So far, so scary, right? Now add a 700-square mile pool of molten carbonate to that already enormous explosion.
And it’s this potential addition of that vast lake underneath the western U.S. to Yellowstone’s already gigantic volcano that has researchers really worried. The sudden release of that much CO2 into the atmosphere would be devastating. And during a 2017 interview with the Daily Mail, Dr Hier-Majumder explained why.
“Releasing only one per cent of this CO2 into the atmosphere will be the equivalent of burning 2.3 trillion barrels of oil,” the geologist said. To put that into context, in 2018 the worldwide total of oil barrels consumed was around 35 billion. That’s a lot of extra greenhouse gas.
“We might not think of the deep structure of the Earth as linked to climate change,” Dr. Hier-Majumder continued. “This discovery not only has implications for subterranean mapping, but also for our future atmosphere.” And that’s not all the geologists learned from their deep-Earth research.
In fact, the discovery of the molten reservoir has entirely altered scientists’ understanding of the amount of carbon dioxide contained in the Earth itself. It seems that researchers have vastly underestimated just how much CO2 the planet holds. Experts now believe the total contained in the upper mantle could be as much as 100 trillion tons.
“The existence of such deep reservoirs shows how important is the role of deep Earth in the carbon cycle,” Dr. Hier-Majumder told the Daily Mail. So, what precisely are the chances of Yellowstone’s super-volcano erupting to the point where this scenario comes to pass? Are we likely to experience a nuclear winter caused by ash and enormous amounts of carbon dioxide?
The short answer is: no. While Yellowstone’s super-volcano is awesomely powerful, it’s been considered dormant for a very long time. The most recent eruption, which spewed almost 250 cubic miles’ worth of ash, rock and dust into the atmosphere, occurred more than 600,000 years ago. Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean there’s no activity at all in the caldera.
Believe it or not, the Yellowstone caldera often rises and falls in line with the magma levels beneath it. In the five years between 2004 and 2008, for example, it climbed 15 inches, which was the biggest movement since 1923. In the following years, however, that speed has slowed considerably. However, it isn’t just increasing amounts of molten rock that can affect the volcano.
Yellowstone experiences as many as 2,000 earthquakes every single year, in fact. Thankfully, though, the majority of them are barely noticeable and pose no danger. However, very occasionally hundreds of quakes occur continuously. Larger shockwaves in the area are rare, then, but they do happen. The most recent, in March 2014, reached 4.8 on the Richter scale, the biggest in the park for 40 years.
So, barring any giant earthquakes under Yellowstone, it seems we’re pretty safe from the lake of molten carbonate under the United States as well as its trapped CO2. And as for the park’s caldera, it seems there’s not much to worry about there, either. According to those in the know, each year the chances that it’ll blow are one in 700,000. We’ll take those odds.