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Mountain News: Waiting for Yellowstone's erupution



JACKSON, Wyo. — You think the smoke this summer was annoying? Just wait until the enormous magma chamber underlying Yellowstone National Park blows again. Scientists calculate it does so every 600,000 to 800,000 years. It last erupted 640,000 years ago.

Depending upon which source you consult, the magnitude of such an eruption would be somewhere between 2,000 and 6,000 times more powerful that of Mount St. Helens in 1980.

Everything within 907 kilometres would be incinerated, and Wyoming and other states could be blanketed under a metre of ash.

Dust and gases from the eruption would blot out enough sunlight to wipe out crops and plunge the world into a "volcanic winter" that could last for a decade or more. The famine could kill untold millions, said NBC News.

There are about 20 such potential supervolcanoes around the globe. The last such eruptions occurred 74,000 years ago. The Krakatoa eruption of 1883, which caused temperatures in North America to decline 1.2 degrees C, was a much less powerful eruption.

Now comes a NASA study looking at how the heat from that magma could be vented and made into something useful. Brian Wilcox, a fellow at the California Institute of Technology Jet Propulsion Laboratory, described how 160 deep wells could be drilled from just outside the park's perimeter, slanting directionally to tap the heat of the magma chamber. The heat begins at about 6.5 kilometres underground. The heat is manifested near the surface of Old Faithful and other geysers, as well at Yellowstone's many steaming, boiling hot springs.

Water could be used to convey the heat, circulating at a rate of about 13 cubic metres per second, which is comparable to the flow of a modest-sized mountain river in late summer.

Wilcox told the Jackson Hole

News&Guide that the heat produced could be translated into 10 gigawatts of electricity. That's 10 times the electricity produced by Wyoming's Jim Bridger Power Plant, one of the largest coal-fired power plants in the West.

This venting must continue for thousands of years to avert the danger of eruption. Of course, given humanity's voracious hunger for energy, maybe this could help avert the risk of global warming because of greenhouse gas emissions.

No plans to implement the idea are afoot. For the record, scientists calculate that the chance of the Yellowstone supervolcano blowing in any given lifetime is one-tenth of one per cent. Still, that's higher odds that an asteroid smacking the Earth.

Mama bear gets a bit crabby

ASPEN, Colo. — Canmore, at the entrance to Banff National Park, has ordered that crabapples be removed from all trees, because they attract bears. Banff is thinking about a similar measure.

Could Aspen be next? You'd hope so, based on a report last week in the Aspen Daily News. A bear with two cubs had climbed up a crabapple tree near Hyman Avenue mall in downtown Aspen. People stopped to gawk — lots of people, young and old, tourists and locals, male and female.

So far, no harm. But then the sow climbed down to get a drink from the stream that flows through the mall.

Instagram opportunity! Police said one woman, holding a child, approached within one to 1.5 metres of the bear, then turned her back to get a selfie. That was a little too close for the sow, who ran to an alley — apparently detached from her cubs. Not surprisingly, the cub-less bear stood on her hind legs.

"It was probably one of the worst situations I've had with a bear," said the police officer, Sgt. Rob Fabrocini. He reported 50 to 60 people milling about over the course of several hours.

People are "putting themselves in danger and others in danger," Fabrocini told the Daily News. "If a bear grabs a hold of someone, it puts us in a very bad situation. We're just asking for common sense and to (take photos) from a distance."

But even if the crabapple trees were removed, Aspen is likely to have continued problems with bears. Citing city records, The Aspen Times reported that bears broke into homes within Aspen's city limits 23 times during August. Wildlife officials warn those who live in first-floor units to keep their windows closed.

As of mid-September, nine bears had been euthanized, and others had been relocated. Aspen's usual problems with bears were exacerbated this year by a frozen acrorn crop and a thin crop of berries.

Bet you a buck that they both won't stay in business

WESTCLIFFE, Colo. — In Colorado's spectacularly beautiful Wet Mountain Valley, an odd business competition is lining up. The valley has two small towns, Westcliffe and Silver Cliff, located cheek to jowl. You leave one town, you enter the other.

Between the two is just one of the stores that are the 21st-century equivalent of the old five-and-dimes. It's a Family Dollar store, and it's located in Westcliffe. Now comes a proposal by Dollar General to build a store next door, but across the town boundary, in Silver Cliff.

In reporting this, the Wet Mountain Tribune noted that the two went head-to-head in similar fashion in the Colorado town of Florence. There, Dollar General won the battle, and the Family Dollar building became a hardware store. That's hard to figure, given that Family Dollar really does sell all its stuff for a buck. Dollar General, not so much.

How do you communicate risks of mountain climbs?

ASPEN, Colo. — After the death of six people on the big mountains of the Elk Range between Aspen and Crested Butte, Pitkin County officials and federal land managers continue to puzzle over what can be done to alert mountain climbers to the potential dangers.

"We want to get some real frank talk out there about what it's like to climb these peaks and what they can expect," said Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo. "These are not hikes. These are climbs."

Five of the six deaths occurred on Capitol Peak and the sixth on the Maroon Bells. Both can be climbed without protection, such as ropes and pitons. But both also offer abundant opportunities to get into trouble.

While there are signs at trailheads, The Aspen Times said officials suspect few people read them. One idea is to install a stand-alone sign — perhaps farther along the trail — outlining the deadly possibilities on the peaks.

Signs can have unintended consequences. For example, a sign describing the safest routes may create a false sense of security.

As San Francisco sizzles, pikas disappear

LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — Mark Twain is supposed to have said that the coldest winter he ever spent was in San Francisco. Actually, he probably said something like that about Paris, but not San Francisco.

No matter. San Francisco has been hot lately, 41 degrees Celcius on Sept. 1, the highest recording in almost 150 years.

To the east in the Sierra Nevada, it's also been hot. But a new study published in August suggested the rising warmth may have already driven out a cold-loving critter, the hamster-size pika.

A six-year study in a 427-square-kilometre area of the Sierra Nevada near Lake Tahoe found no recent evidence of pikas. The research team, led by biologist Joseph Stewart, had begun monitoring the area when the pika was petitioned for listing under the California and federal endangered species acts.

"When we found old pika poop in every talus field that we looked at along the Truckee River, which is super-low elevation, we started scratching our heads. If there is old pika poop here, where did the pikas go? Are they at higher elevations?" Stewart told the Tahoe Daily Tribune. "The next six years we surveyed at progressively higher and higher elevations until we realized that, oh my god, pikas are (extirpated) from this whole huge area."

Pikas are adapted tho surviving in cold, snowy winters. Pikas don't hibernate. Their thick coats of fur and a high metabolic rate that acts as a furnace allow their survival in cold weather.

Those adaptations, so useful for surviving cold, make them vulnerable to overheating.

"There are thermal physiological studies that show their upper critical limit is only three degrees C above their resting body temperature," Stewart explained. "So, they are very well adapted to surviving under the snow in the wintertime."

Stewart believes the pikas in the study area may have died of hyperthermia from foraging in conditions that were too hot. Or, possibly, they did not collect enough food due to the warmer temperatures and ended up starving or not reproducing.

While pikas disappear from the mountains above Lake Tahoe, scientists continue to ponder how much wildfire risk is increased by rising temperatures.

This year's weather will eventually become the norm, Michael Anderson, the California state climatologist, told the Sacramento Bee.

"We've had hot summers in the past, but as the world warms you spend more time above certain (temperature) thresholds," Anderson said.

"There's no one event that's going to be a flashing sign saying, 'Climate change did this.' It's just the background upon which these events start playing out. We're in a warmer world than we were back in, say, 1991."