The view from the top of Mount Washburn is stunning.
It’s one of the tallest points in Yellowstone National Park, more than 10,000 feet high, and I’ve had the good fortune of being able to hike twice to its summit and marvel at its 360-degree view of northwestern Wyoming.
Spreading out below are lush forests, cold blue lakes, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, hordes of wildlife, and the geyser basins, mud pots and fantastically colored hot springs that help make Yellowstone one of the most marvelous places on Earth. Sometimes you swear you can smell the sulfur wafting up.
In the distance, you can see that Washburn is surrounded by a ring of mountains — the result, a park ranger explained, of the huge volcanic eruption that occurred around Washburn and created the modern Yellowstone some 630,000 years ago.
What’s aboveground is amazing. But what’s below is awesome. And I mean that in the sense of provoking awe and apprehension.
The center of America’s greatest national park is a caldera, the depression that forms after a volcano erupts. That’s where all those geysers bubble and burst. And beneath that caldera lies the Yellowstone supervolcano.
It sounds like a B movie title, but it’s very much in the news right now. Researchers from Arizona State University have determined that the pressure deep beneath the surface has been building up much more quickly than anyone realized. The data collected are pushing up the timetable for another eruption — from thousands of years to, perhaps, as little as a few decades.
What’s the big deal? We’ve all seen footage of volcanoes erupting, right? But not of a supervolcano.
This is a different breed. Yellowstone’s supervolcano could shoot 250 cubic miles of rock and ash into the air. That’s 2,500 times more powerful than the Mount St. Helens eruption in 1980, which was 1,600 times stronger than the Hiroshima atomic bomb. The ash would coat most of the United States. And it could plunge the planet into volcanic winter. Among other things, that would mean no crops and, well, you know how that ends.
“It’s shocking how little time is required to take a volcanic system from being quiet and sitting there to the edge of an eruption,” Arizona State researcher Hannah Shamloo told The New York Times.
She was quick to note there is no way to say precisely when Yellowstone’s supervolcano will explode. It’s erupted three times so far — 2.1 million years ago, 1.3 million years ago and 630,000 years ago. As geologists like to say, it’s due.
Even before Shamloo and company made their discovery by analyzing crystals in deposits from the last eruption for changes in temperature and composition, scientists recently found magma flowing into the underground chamber, forcing the ground above it to rise by 10 inches.
The Arizona State finding was a bracing bit of news at a time when the country, indeed the world, is struggling with the aftermath of assorted destructive hurricanes, raging forest fires, severe flooding and other natural disasters. And when most of us are preparing for, and invested in trying to mitigate, the effects of global warming. And when some of us feel like the world has tilted a bit off its axis.
An explosion of Yellowstone’s supervolcano would put us all out of our misery.
But . . .
Here’s where the B movie morphs into a Bruce Willis action flick.
NASA reportedly has a $3.4 billion plan to save us. It involves drilling into the volcano, about six miles or so, to release heat.
A side benefit: An enormous source of geothermal energy.
The risk: Drilling could trigger the eruption.
I’ve wanted for years to go back to Mount Washburn and that awesome view. I’ll probably check in with NASA first.
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.