Saturday, June 25, 2005

Super volcano may be ready to erupt again

On Saturday, Halsor and Toothill left for Yellowstone National Park in Montana, where they will join staff from several universities around the country to research the Yellowstone caldera.

The caldera is a large crater, 31 miles across, that formed from released volcanic material over thousands of years. Halsor said the caldera is referred to as a "super volcano," one that erupts 1,000 times more ash than a normal eruption."These are enormous volcanic events," Halsor said.Halsor and Toothill have conducted GPS research at the caldera since 1999.

Research permits in the park are difficult to obtain, Halsor said, adding they were invited to participate by head researcher Dr. Craig Chesner of Eastern Illinois University.Only a dozen universities from around the country are involved with the research."As a scientist this is a unique opportunity. Only a handful of people in the world do this type of research, and we feel privileged to be a part of that," Toothill said. "Being involved in this is an indicator of the quality of the GPS program at Wilkes."Past events show the caldera erupts every 600,000 years.

The last eruption was 630,000 years ago, Halsor said, and the current research shows some interesting developments."At Yellowstone, what we're seeing is one year the ground may rise up and next year it may subside a few millimeters or centimeters," Halsor said. "We're watching a trend that shows a larger uplift sustained over several years. If we continue to see this accelerated uplift, it might be the early stages (of an event).

The last caldera eruption spewed 1,000 cubic kilometers of volcanic material into the air, Halsor said.Although the pattern or eruptions indicate the caldera is ready to blow again, Halsor cautioned it probably won't be in our lifetime."It would not be surprising if another large eruption were to occur at Yellowstone within the next few 1,000 years," he said. "The overall consensus is there's nothing currently indicating the caldera is on the path of erupting in a big way, but if it were to begin along that path it wouldn't be a surprise to the geological community."Several Wilkes students accompanied Halsor and Toothill for the research, which continues until June 26.

Toothill described the work as "intense," complete with around the clock research and wildlife encounters."We monitor the caldera all day and all night, and there's some unique problems with wildlife," he said. "You have to be very alert because some of the monitoring sites are in grizzly bear habitat."Collected data is brought back to Wilkes to be processed and compared to past years' research.

"It's very exciting to be involved with a community of geologists doing research at one of the most volatile volcanic systems on the planet," Halsor said. "Being able to apply our mode of GPS technology to this unparalleled ecosystem is a privilege."

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