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USGS volcano expert Robert Christiansen on the likelihood of Yellowstone blowing it’s top.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007
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HH: I continue on with my week of Yellowstone right now by thanking Robert L. Christiansen, scientist in charge of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory, for joining me. Mr. Christiansen, welcome, it’s good to have you.

RC: Thanks very much.

HH: Now how long have you been in charge of watching the volcano?

RC: Well, let me correct something right away. I’m no longer in charge. I’m now retired.

HH: Oh.

RC: And I was the scientist in charge until I retired, but there’s another person who’s taken that job at this point.

HH: So you got smart and got out of there before she blew?

RC: (laughing) Well, yeah, but I think I could have stayed around the rest of my life and it still would have been before she blew.

HH: All right, here’s what I want to get…bottom line, I had one of your colleagues on yesterday…

RC: Yes.

HH: Robert Smith, and he didn’t really want to get into this, but I want your best guess as to when she’ll blow again.

RC: Well, you probably won’t get it out of me, either, because we really don’t know. The best we can say is that there’s probably an eruption in Yellowstone on the average, an eruption of some kind, now, not the big one, but an eruption of some kind, on the average of maybe 10,000 to 16,000 years, something like that.

HH: Okay.

RC: So that’s a long time. But when you say an average, that doesn’t mean that it happens every 16,000 years.

HH: Of course not.

RC: It can be much longer than that, or even shorter.

HH: You know, people who count cards in Vegas sometimes lose their shirt, but if they’re really good, they usually win. I’m just trying to count the cards on Yellowstone.

RC: (laughing) Right. Well, I understand what you’re trying to do, but it’s, as you can well imagine, it’s very difficult to actually give a prediction. We consider the chances of a large eruption, an eruption similar to the ones that formed the caldera in the past, as being less than one in a million.

HH: Is it going to eventually go, though?

RC: We don’t even know that. It probably will, there probably will be a volcanic eruption, but it could be a much smaller and much different kind of eruption than the big one that formed the caldera.

HH: Now if they had a big one, Robert Christiansen, what would the impact on the United States today be?

RC: If there were a big one, similar to the three that have occurred in the past, the results would be quite devastating. I mean, certainly, the area around Yellowstone, not just the national part, but a very large area surrounding that would be virtually completely devastated, but it would, the effects would be much more far reaching. There would be ash deposits over large parts of the Western United States, perhaps virtually most of the Western United States. And that ash would of course get eroded into the river systems, and silt up reservoirs, and would cover agricultural fields and so forth and so on.

HH: You’d end up with civil unrest as well, wouldn’t you?

RC: Well, not necessarily. We would hope that there would be, obviously, it would be a very difficult time, and one would hope that there would be enough advance preparation that people could be prepared for what might happen. Obviously, it would be very disruptive, and there would be lots of property damage, and undoubtedly some lives lost, too.

HH: Now in the stuff I was reading about this, this is partly tongue in cheek, but I find it fascinating, that there are five USGS volcano observatories in the United States: Hawaii, Alaska, California, Pacific Northwest, and Yellowstone. And they monitor between 43 potentially hazardous volcanoes, that does not include Ron Paul or Dennis Kucinich. Of those 43, which are most likely to pop?

RC: Well, the ones that are most likely to pop, first of all, the Hawaiian volcanoes are almost always active, and they are erupting right now as we speak. Similarly, Mount St. Helens is erupting right now as we speak, so both of those are active at the present time.

HH: Okay, big pops versus little pops.

RC: Now those are little in the sense that they’re not, what’s not going now is not destructive to any, it’s not affecting people in any direct way. It’s not actually destroying any valuable property at the moment. But they do have the possibility for larger eruptions at that, so there are eruptions. The other volcanoes that are most likely to erupt are the one in Alaska, and that virtually every year, or at least certainly every few years, there’s a volcanic eruption in Alaska, and some of which are quite explosive, and can be quite significant in their effects.

HH: But what about the…okay, let’s go globally. We’ve got Krakatoa, and then we had Mount St. Helens. About every how many years do we get something that really makes the world say whoa?

RC: Well, it depends on what it takes to say whoa.

HH: I just named the two that count as whoa in my book.

RC: Okay, that’s right. Well, probably an eruption of that scale, that magnitude, maybe happens once a century, let’s say, on average. So we had one at Pinatubo in the last few years. We had, of course, Mount St. Helens in 1980. We had Mt. Katmai in Alaska in 1912. So that’s three in the 20th Century that were, I think, big enough to get the attention of many people around the world, and had very significant effects in the areas where they occurred.

HH: How about Long Lake?

RC: Long Valley, you mean?

HH: Long Valley, yeah. Or it’s going to be Long Lake if it opens up a channel to the sea. But what about that one?

RC: Long Valley is a volcano that certainly will have eruptions in the future, not necessarily a big caldera-forming eruption. In fact, not likely. But it does have eruptions, there have been eruptions there in the last few hundred years.

HH: Play with me for a second on this one, Robert Christiansen. You said not likely, but how much warning would you have that Long Valley was going to go in a big way?

RC: I think we would have a great deal of warning, and I think that’s probably true for any of these large caldera systems. We have enough experience with them to know that when they become unsteady, when they develop a period of unrest, we get lots of signals. There’s lots of seismicity, there’s usually ground surface deformation, there’s usually a change in the nature of the gases that are given off by the volcano, and the amount of gases. So lots of signals would be given. Obviously, we do not have direct experience with one of these huge eruptions, so the last one of those that occurred was probably the Toba eruption in Indonesia about 70,000 years ago. So we don’t have a lot of observational…

HH: Just 70,000 years?

RC: That’s right, yeah.

HH: Is the likelihood, if you take all the hot spots, supervolcano spots, do we have an idea of the regularity, globally, with which these occur?

RC: Probably on the average, I would say maybe every 10,000 years, or some tens of thousands of years, let’s say.

HH: So the last one we had was 70,000 years ago?

RC: That’s right, yeah.

HH: So we’re due somewhere on the globe.

RC: Somewhere on the globe, it’s entirely possible there’ll be one in our lifetimes. It’s also entirely possible there won’t be.

HH: So what does one of those do to the atmosphere?

RC: They can, depending on the size of the eruption, they can have very significant effects on the atmosphere. Even small eruptions, like the Pinatubo eruption, for example, did have measurable effects on global temperatures…

HH: What did they do?

RC: And they generally have a cooling effect on the atmosphere. We know that for example, in 1815, the eruption of Tambora in Indonesia, produced something that was called the year without a summer in both North America and Western Europe. It was…

HH: I’m fascinated…now here’s the obvious question. So global warming could be cooled off if we could just sort of manipulate the volcanoes?

RC: Well, these things would have a cooling effect, which might last several years, but that’s of course a blip on the longer term increase of temperatures that are going on globally.

HH: Now what’s a retired supervolcano watcher do?

RC: Well, he still keeps his interest in volcanoes. I still have an office, and I’m still actually writing reports about Yellowstone, but I, because I am retired, I don’t spend all the time at the office. I’m here when I can be.

HH: Are you going to write a book about volcanoes?

RC: I have written books about volcanoes in the past. I think my book writing days may be over, but I’m still writing scientific papers about them.

HH: What do you make of Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything?

RC: Bill Bryson’s a wonderful writer, and he makes a very interesting story out of lots of scientific topics, and I enjoy reading his books. I have to say that in his chapter on Yellowstone, there are quite a few inaccuracies and exaggerations, but you know…

HH: It made for a really good yarn.

RC: Oh, he does. He writes a wonderful story, and it’s good reading, and it’s overall, I would say he got the story about right.

HH: So can we rule out a supervolcano in the next 100 years in Yellowstone?

RC: I would say yes.

HH: 100% probable, possible there?

RC: Well, nothing’s ever 100% probable. I don’t know that I’ll be still in this room by the time we hang up the telephone.

HH: Okay, and you wrote about the last 7.6 earthquake in Yellowstone, which was what? ’59?

RC: That’s right.

HH: Well, how often do those come along?

RC: Those probably happen with a frequency of at least probably every few, some, perhaps on the scale of a century or so, something of that sort.

HH: So we get all you guys in a room, and we bring the shades down, and we close the doors, and we sweep the room for bugs, and you all talk about catastrophic events. What’s the one that you guys talk about the most?

RC: Well, you know, you might be surprised to think that we actually don’t sit around and talk about catastrophic events that much. We certainly do talk about these kinds of what are now called supervolcanic eruptions. They would be extremely catastrophic, but the probabilities of their happening are very small. So it’s always very difficult to balance the very small probability of something that would have a very large effect.

HH: Yeah, that’s a problem in tort law, too.

RC: Exactly. And that’s right. There are many human activities for which this is true. This is even more so, perhaps, for some of these major natural catastrophes of this sort, but that’s, our knowledge remains limited.

HH: Well, Robert Christiansen, I appreciate your taking the time to expand on your vast knowledge, for those of us who lack the science gene. We look forward to checking back in with you in the future.

End of interview.

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