Quite a bit has been written on the geologic underpinnings of Yellowstone National Park, particularly the aspect of the park sitting atop a gigantic volcano. The latest window into this world, from Greg Breining, is a good read for the lay volcanologist with an interest in the park.
If you recall, it was just about three years ago that a made-for-TV docudrama about this geologic wonder created some serious buzz about whether Yellowstone, and anyone visiting within a few hundred miles, was going to be blown to smithereens at any moment.
Well, that was three years ago, and while Yellowstone's geologic plumbing has uttered some burps -- minor earthquakes are normal, the Norris Geyser Basin grew a bit hotter than normal in 2003, the caldera is pushing up at a somewhat faster-than-normal rate -- the park is still there.
How long will that remain the case? Good question. And no one knows the answer. But what geologists do know about the super volcano that lies beneath Yellowstone is explained by Mr. Breining in a comfortable style that doesn't require you to have passed Geology 101. Indeed, the approach the author takes neither requires that you have a PhD nor talks down to you. Rather, he simply goes about providing answers to questions in a way that can be readily grasped.
Imagine a block of rock more than eight miles by eight miles at the base, and more than eight miles high -- a mountain far more massive than Everest -- ejected from the earth, rocketed more than twenty miles into the stratosphere, blasted down the mountainsides, pulverized, melted, and reformed as rock.
That's how Mr. Breining portrays one of the super volcano's eruptions 2.1 million years ago. Creates a picture in your mind, no?
Since we can't foretell the future, it's often easier to describe the past. And that's much the course the author takes. In addition to taking us along with him during a field course into Yellowstone's geology, Mr. Breining has us tag along with him to eastern Nebraska, to a spot 1,000 miles east of where the "Yellowstone hot spot" was located nearly 12 million years ago, to dramatize how incredibly powerful that hot spot can be when it blows.
In building his book, the author takes the time not only to point to the relatively few "super volcanoes" geologists know of, and provide a rundown on their eruptions, but he also documents the histories of the deadliest volcanoes that history has recorded.
Mr. Breining concludes his book by looking into a geologic crystal ball ... and seeing nothing but clouds. Not long after the BBC and Discovery Channel teamed up on their Supervolcano docudrama, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois was sufficiently flustered that he wrote Paul Doss, at the time Yellowstone's supervisory geologist, wondering what he should tell his constituents.
"It was a challenge to write that letter," Doss told Mr. Breining. "I agonized over that letter for days, because, you know, it was a serious inquiry. And I don't know whether the senator actually believed what he was writing me, but he had to do what his constituents wanted. So I just tried to assure them that it's probably not going to happen. And there's not a damned thing we can do about it if it does."