Yellowstone New Year’s Eve Update

Yellowstone looks to be keeping everyone on their toes as we ring in 2009. The earthquake swarm reported earlier this week is continuing, with multiple events between 2-3.5 on the Richter Scale. Again, the folks monitoring the caldera – this time the Univ. of Utah – play down these events as normal for any active caldera system … and they’re very likely right. However, the media love to bring up the “supervolcano” angle and we’re even getting expert opinion from (wait for it) Garrison Keillor!.  The earthquakes are just normal earthquakes so far – none of the dreaded/anticipated harmonic tremor that might indicate an eruption. This will likely mean that more gas and water monitoring will be occurring in the park in the coming weeks/months.


25 thoughts on “Yellowstone New Year’s Eve Update

  1. Let me say a few words about some different volcanic resources available on the web – and some have different strengths.
    The blog here at eruptions provides good accurate information in a timely way – and Erik has the highest personal expertise in what he is discussing.
    The Volcanism blog also provides good, accurate, and sometimes more timely information. His website excels at translating Spanish reports on dangerous volcanoes in South America. He is a superb source of official information on Chaiten. He also provides a lot of links to dig deeper. Like Erik – he is not given to alarmism but he probably provides the deepest and thorough volcanic coverage on the internet. His Volcanism blog doesn’t engender as many comments as this blog does. The link button to make or read comments there blends in with all the other links – it doesn’t stand out much – and the comments aren’t used much.
    Alan Sullivan has a wide-ranging blog that will sometimes intensely focus on a volcanoes that he thinks have the potential to change history. Since he is an outsider – Tianca might respect his independence. His blog is usually among the first to address any major changes in the status quo for the one or two volcanoes that might happen to be following. Particularly he will give you quick notice of any seismographical activity that happens at Yellowstone. He or the commenters at his blog will give nice, very timely analysis of any activity visible at the Chaiten webcam.
    Although he isn’t an expert he learns as he goes along. He is often a very timely source of information and he quickly passes on information found elsewhere. As an outsider he is less constrained about engaging in “what if” scenarios. If he thinks there is a 5% chance that Chaiten could have a catastrophic eruption he will say it. I think he is read by some people around the world who have something worth contributing.
    Another site worth occasionally checking out for new information is
    John Seach is a volcano filmer and explorer. He sometimes has first hand accounts of what is happening at volcanoes.
    Of course there are also Smithsonian reports issued regularly that you can subscribe to get via email.
    Earthquake links also bear watching. When one happens near a volcano it may – or may not be significant for the volcano.

  2. Hi Tianca.
    A few years ago two different people where I used to work told me about Yellowstone Supervolcano. Since then I have done an immense amount of research on Yellowstone and other volcanoes. So I am at this site because of personal and collective “worry” myself. I was going to respond earlier to your post and talk about all the other dangerous spots in the world.
    However, normally you will find that Hollywood doesn’t do a whole lot of justice when it comes to historical events. It is true that some scientists may agree with some aspects of a Hollywood film – like some may agree that a movie might characterize the danger of a super-eruption. But, Yellowstone has had many rather average eruptions. In fact since the last super-eruption there has been 60-80 normal size eruptions and effusions of lava.
    Many other calderas around the world and I’ll take Rabaul as an example, have had caldera forming eruptions. However, in addition to the especially dangerous eruptions they often then grow volcanoes inside them or to the side of them. So it is hard to know exactly what is happening.
    Is anything happening under Yellowstone? You bet! It has been growing an inch or two a year for a while. In seventy years if it continues at this rate we have a growth of 140 inches. A four yard elevation over an area of the park doesn’t necessarily portend an imminent eruption.
    Historically, Yellowstone has had areas under the ground heat up and blast a large chunk in the park away.
    As for “harmonic tremors” Erik has given links to where on the internet you can study them. See also Alan Sullivan’s blog at the end of my comment.
    I am not aware of fish dying … but even if they are this can be common in areas that have lots of CO2 in the deeper portions of the lake. Some large volcanic lakes in Africa and elsewhere often get CO2 build up in the deeper colder parts of the lake. Sometimes a landslide into the lake can cause the deeper CO2 water to rise to the surface and then this depressurized water bubbles like a softdrink and spews out dangerous levels of CO2, maybe methane and kills a lot of life for miles around.
    Right now at Mammoth Lake also called “Long Valley” (the site of another supervolcanic eruption some 760,000 years ago if I remember correctly) there has been a period of restlessness spanning decades. There is so much CO2 being emitted that some areas of the park have had the trees die off. People are discouraged or prohibited from lying down and camping – especially when it is snowy – because they might be overcome by CO2. The bigger the volcano often the longer the ramp up is to an eruption. However I am not ruling out the triggering effect of major earthquakes. For example if an 8 or 9 magnitude earthquake strikes in CA it would likely disturb volcanoes in that area. Similarly, Yellowstone is near a fault line in the tetons that may have a 7 magnitude earthquake every few thousand years of so. After such an earthquake Yellowstone would be more prone to heightened activity or an eruption of some sort.
    Chaiten is now acting up again. Some scientists think that it risks erupting more powerfully than it yet has in this cycle of activity. It is a Southern Hemisphere volcano. If it erupts more explosively than most are now contemplating – even at a supereruptive level called Ultra-Plinian then it would probably just affect the Southern Hemisphere. However, their food shortages would have an affect on the worldwide supply. Ash from one hemisphere tends to stay in one hemisphere. An eruption near the equator could foul up the weather on both sides of the equator (example Toba Indonesia 74,000 years ago.
    Back to perspective. Yes Yellowstone has risen a few feet since a survey a hundred years ago. However Captain Cook landed on Iwo Jima and it has risen 40 meters since then. It is based in a submerged caldera. The growth rate of this volcano is much faster than the growth rate at Yellowstone.
    So I agree with Erik. Yellowstone is probably going to be fine. More worrisome to me are the Caldera Complexes throughout South America and elsewhere that have produced supereruptions in the past as big as the Yellowstone eruptions. However these are likely unmonitored as was Chaiten before it started erupting. (I don’t think it likely that they will erupt in our life time – but I am incredulous that we don’t stick some seismometers on them – for they are potentially catastrophic.)
    Kamchatka has had large caldera eruptions especially around 42,000-40,000 years ago. The area is now also becoming more active. Some people have expected that the large 9 magnitude Earthquake that caused the Indonesian Tsunami could have shaken up the earth and spurred more activity. The Russians are now scurrying to get their Kamchatka monitoring stations working again.
    If we did not have seismographs in Yellowstone – we would not be paying any attention to what is happening there. It hasn’t even had a four magnitude earthquake there recently. People can barely feel the strongest quakes in the swarms.
    Tianca, if you want to be jumpy … maybe I ought to start a website of my own that looks at all the spots in the world that we should be jumpy about.
    There are about 80 caldera volcanoes listed at the Smithsonian website. It is these largely unmonitored and restless volcanoes that are more likely to take us by some sort of surprise in our lifetime. Just like in 1816 we had no summer because of the 1815 eruption of Tambora, we could very well lose a growing season and see some worldwide famine from an eruption of one of these lesser volcanoes.
    Keep monitoring Yellowstone … yes … I’d also like to see you back up your comments – I don’t believe hearsay – I’ve never met you before and I don’t know who your sources are.. .
    However, the best sources for good volcanic information right now is Alan Sullivan’s blog.
    He is monitoring the Chaiten eruption right now. The dome has grown by about 500 meters since about spring (while erupting the whole time). He is not an expert … but he is pretty fast learner and dedicates much of his days to monitoring this stuff. He gives some reasons Chaiten might be a climate changer.

  3. Dead fish in the lake, lots of water leaving the lake in the river, animals freaking out and leaving the park in droves, people’s shoes melting and trails closed. Earthquakes by the bulge in the lake are not the only thing going on!!! And the press tripping all over themselves to ‘calm’ people down. They aren’t very convincing, either. Rangers can’t get sleep because of the swarms.
    Explain all of this away. The lake is hot!

  4. Erik,
    It is possible that my friends were mistaken, I know they dont go down to yellowstone all that often (beats my why, id spend all the time down there) so its possible they simply mistook something thats been around for a while as new.

  5. Tianca – I would be stunned if there was anyone trying to cover up activity at Yellowstone. In fact, I would imagine we’re getting more information about this swarm than any swarm in the history of the caldera. At this point, the swarm just doesn’t merit any alerts or evacuations.
    Simon – That would be big news, but I have yet to hear anyone I know mention this.

  6. Just curious. If these harmonic tremors are really resonance with other eruptions around the would, why are sites removing such graphs of tremors from their site to hide this from the public? Why remove the evidence if it is harmless?
    Other sites kept their info on the sites they have, so why would USGS remove theirs???
    I’ve heard from more that a few that there is a coverup going on, and they are wondering why no alert and evacuation has been done. There are harmonic tremors, the swarms of earthquakes have slowed down, but are still there. The new is saying that the swarms have stopped, when they clearly haven’t.
    It looks like they are covering their asses, if you ask me. EXACTLY as was done in the Supervolcano movie.
    Talk about a movie based on the facts!!! They sure got the facts right.

  7. Ive heard reports from friends that live close by to yellowstone that there are some new Geysers. I cant confirm this as I live 4,000 miles away or so but my friends tell me that they have been down to yellowstone and have seen them for themselves.

  8. Dr. Eric,
    I have noticed that starting at approximately 01:11 on 1/3/2009 in the LKWY Seismogram there shows a very short burst that keeps repeating itself up to present time. These bursts typically last from 2-5 minutes, is this evidence of a new hydrothermal vent?
    Also, with all of the quakes in the swarm being located so close together (in some cases just 100 yards) and the depth going from surface to 7.5km down could we be seeing the birth of a new chimney and is it possible that this a new hydrothermal?

  9. Yes, the “Harmonic Tremor” was caused by two very distant 7.4 and 7.6 Indonesia earthquakes, it took 1/2 hour for the seismic waves to arrive at Yellowstone. They show up on all broadband seismometers across the US e.g. here in Tennessee.
    Any other similar low frequency (4 cycles/min) “Harmonic Tremors” are large distant earthquakes, not Yellowstone magma. I’m a bit embarrassed about an excited post I wrote elsewhere on the web. True Harmonic Tremors have a frequency of 0.5 to 5 Hz, not 1/15Hz!

  10. Just another amateur who has been watching the seismic traces during the last week. However, this afternoon, after everything quietened down for a day, there are what look to be well defined harmonic traces on many of the seismographs around Yellowstone from about 1.30pm to 4.30pm. Any comments on them? Two good examples (among many) are on Old Faithful and Madison River.

  11. whoops, I missed the reports on the two Indonesia earthquakes. They rang the YS caldera like a bell, at about a 4 cycle/min frequency. This might be the natural frequency of the caldera surface, if you think of it as a membrane stretched over a viscouse resonating chamber (my apologies to the physicists and acoustic engineers reading this blog, for my misuse of terminology).

  12. It looks like there was a steady harmonic tremor, for about 20 minutes or so, showing on most of the yellowstone sensors a bit bit earlier this afternoon.

  13. I’ve already recieved 6 earthquake alerts today on my cell phone for the Yellowstone area. You can go to the USGS site and sign up for the alerts. The quakes at Yellowstone Lake so for today register between a 2.2 and a 3.4 which came in a couple hours ago.

  14. even if nothing particularly dramatic results from all this activity, it might be worthwhile to resurvey the inflated plains of the the NE lake bottom this spring and see if there are any changes. This is a great example of science in action and a timely reminder that sometimes geologic events occur on the human time scale. And also a nice distraction during the Rose Bowl commercial breaks (though as a Husky, I’m a bit conflicted on who to root for)

  15. The action on the seismographs looks like nothing more than noise. It likely has something to do with the wind being calm early in the day and gusting over 30 mph now.

  16. Erik said: What we really need is another parameter to show evidence of magma, such as water temperature in the lake/hydrothermal vents, increased CO2 or SO2 emissions or increased surface temperature in that area of the park.
    So have there been any such occurrences noted? I am a complete novice but very interested in Geology.

  17. I just posted the following over at Alan Sullivan’s blog.
    “…Here is an USGS example of wind:
    Notice also the seismic recording from the Promontory on December 23rd. It was humming all day.
    The short tremors that could seem as if they were “harmonic tremors” often were recorded on other seismographs nearer the origin with more distinct initial shocks that seem more normal to me. Earlier today I compiled all the seismograms into one photoshop document that easily allowed me to hide or reveal each layer and see which waves were arriving early or late. Each seismic recorder was recording events differently. The origin of each shock would show up first and usually strongest in the readings of nearby seismographs and then would arrive weaker and later at more distant locations. Some seismographs were recording clean signals and those near lakes were often producing a lot of hum – I’ve heard reports of it being windy there.
    best to you all

  18. Thanks for the link, Brian. At this point, it is still hard to tell exactly what these events might indicate. They could still be the result of a hydrothermal event, movement along a fault or magma moving under the caldera. What we really need is another parameter to show evidence of magma, such as water temperature in the lake/hydrothermal vents, increased CO2 or SO2 emissions or increased surface temperature in that area of the park.

  19. Just an amateur observer here, but the most recent trace looks an awful lot like the “tremor” example on the USGS site, and the amplitude of the “tremor” seems to be increasing steadily. It’s certainly different than any seismograph output I’ve ever seen in California…

  20. If you’re curious about the shapes of different seismic signals, check out:
    USGS Seismic signals
    For another look at volcanic earthquake, check out these images of a “Tornillo” signal from Galeras. They are another sign of potential eruption.
    There have been a lot of earthquakes at Yellowstone, but none of them scream “eruption”. We’ll just have to wait and see …

  21. I am the guy by the way who pointed them out to Alan Sullivan. I have seen those kinds of signals at St. Helens that were harmonic tremors, but also at other cascade volcanoes that turned out to be weather related, as in strong winds that make a sensitive seismorgraph shake like a harmonic tremor.
    Still, whatever this is, it is being detected on several stations, like Mary Lake and Yellowstone Lake. I am interested in what the professionals like Dr. Klemetti say. I think a lot of people are assuming these are harmonic tremors, when they may not be. Hopefully we will hear soon from Dr. Klemetti.

  22. Happy New Year Dr.Eric and all Volcano enthusiasts.
    Alan Sullivan over at Fresh Bilge has checked out some of the Traces from the the Yellowstone swarms. One of his alert readers pointed him to the traces. Alan has analysed some small tremors in the traces, see

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