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Yellowstone Park Awesome, Deadly Natural Forces Still Puzzle Scientists, Says Research Geologist

Recent swarms of earthquakes and development of several new thermal features in the past few years serve as a warning of the potentially life-threatening power of Yellowstone National Park.

Rick Hutchinson, a research geologist for the park, said scientists still do not have a full understanding of the awesome power of the geothermal features on the surface of and underneath the park.

Reflecting that, he said, is the formation of a new mud volcano near Astringent Creek, which flows into Pelican Creek northwest of Yellowstone Lake.

The Astringent Creek mudpot, which is ringed by a series of craters and fumaroles that spit sulfur-rich steam into the air, began forming before 1991, when geologists noted similar formations at the Mushpots site near Pelican Creek.

The Mushpots site, which began forming in 1985, consists of a large mud volcano that had enough energy several years ago to develop cabin-sized blobs of mud. It has since calmed down.

Hutchinson says in the latest issue of the quarterly “Yellowstone Science” that he predicted in 1993 that the newest super-heated fumarole at the Astringent Creek site would soon evolve into a large mud volcano.

He said that prediction had come true, with formation of a mud pot powerful enough to hurl large blobs of mud nearly 100 feet. The ground temperature in the area, once high enough to kill dozens of old, large pine trees, has peaked, but thermal features continue to evolve. Nearby craters and fumaroles are spreading toward the main mudpot.

“Hydrothermal outbreaks at the Mushpots (near Pelican Creek), Norris Geyser Basin and west of Astringent Creek are wake-up calls warning of future life-threatening geologic unrest in the Yellowstone region,” Hutchinson wrote in the magazine.

He said in an interview Thursday that while such changes can be dangerous to humans and human development in the area, he didn’t want to create a panic.

“All I’m trying to say, and I think that all that other geologists are trying to say is, ‘Don’t become totally complacent like politicians do,”’ he said. “People haven’t been in the Yellowstone area that long, so we are only beginning to see how dynamic and how violent our natural forces here can be.

“And everywhere you look, there’s all kinds of clues and evidence that very, very dangerous and violent things have happened in relatively recent times and there’s nothing to allow a person to wish or assume that they won’t happen again in the near future.”

Hutchinson said he was lucky enough to be at the Mushpots site one early spring day to see huge blobs of mud bubbling to the surface.

“That in itself shook the ground so much that I could see full-size trees whipping back and forth,” Hutchinson said.

He said the new thermal features, along with recent swarms of earthquakes, including a spread of several days in July 1995 during which scientists recorded more than 2,000 small temblors, presented some danger.

“We’re talking about smaller stuff, but the smaller stuff is certainly still much more powerful than anything the human race could create and if you got a basketball or watermelon-sized rock headed your way it could kill you just as good as a Mount St. Helens eruption.”

The quakes were clustered near Mount Haynes between Madison Junction and West Yellowstone, Mont. Hutchinson said Mount Haynes sits along the edge of a caldera left by a volcanic eruption about 600,000 years ago, and he said the quakes could have been caused by underground movements of magma or water.

“Everybody should simply be prepared for significant earthquakes that could damage or kill and try to monitor and design things so people won’t be in harm’s way,” he said. “Always keep your eye over your shoulder when you’re in a thermal area because there’s no absolute guarantee that something won’t happen that will create a report and paperwork for me.”

Tags: geology