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Yellowstone Might Explode
By: Dave Johnson

The geology at Yellowstone National Park, here in the United States, is complex.  The whole area is really one big volcano. In fact, some geologist think it might be the largest one on earth.  It appears that the Yellowstone super volcano blows its top every 600,000 years. The last time the place erupted was some 650,000 years ago.   In other words, it is due for another volcanic event.  This event could be a really BAD one. 
It will have a lasting impact on the entire world.  Some experts say that it would be some 1000 times more powerful than the eruption at Mount Saint Helens back in 1980.  The eruption could take place today, next week or 10,000 years from now.  Nobody knows for sure.  But, just a while back, some geologists monitoring seismic data from the Yellowstone area had indicated that a swarm of small earthquakes have been occurring around the park area.  Although these swarms do occur often, this latest round had the geologists worried. 

They said that this could be a sign that magma is on the move under the park area.  When I heard this, I thought to myself, damn! I donít have a plan should I have to evacuate.  After doing some research, I decided that I better come up with a plan and get myself ready should this very dangerous volcano erupt.  My very life could depend on it.

The photo below is the rough outline of the ash deposit from the last eruption some 650,000 years ago.  This area covers about half of the U.S., which is over a million square miles.  Some predict that the amount of ash pushed out by the volcano will be around 250 cubic miles.  If you divide 250 cubic miles by a million you get an average ash depth of 16 inches. 

I live near Denver, which is about 450 miles from Yellowstone, as the crow flies.  Some of the ash deposit data from the last eruption, going back some 650,000 years ago, indicates that Denver could be buried under 6 feet of ash.  The ash depth varies a lot and is very dependent on the wind speed and direction at the time of the eruption.  If Denver did indeed get that much ash, or even a foot, there is no way people could survive here.  You could not take a chance and wait to see what happens, hoping that the ash depth would be less than expected.  To be safe, we would all have to evacuate.  Tens of millions of people would have to leave the blast zone area.  We would have to leave with the idea that there may not be anything to come back to.  Unlike a hurricane, which would allow you to go back after the storm and retrieve some items, this eruption could be so devastating that everything would be buried under ash for many years to come.  Imagine clearing away 6 feet of ash from a million homes.  That will take a long time.

If the time comes and it looks like I will have to evacuate, there will not be much time.  There may be some early seismic warning signs before the big event but there may only be a few hours between major changes in the geological seismic data and the actual beginning of an eruption. I may only have a couple hours to load up and go. With tens of millions of other people also trying to leave the area, it would be very important to try and be ahead of the traffic jam that would surely occur.
I donít own a trailer, truck or RV.  There will be no time to stop at a bank, rent a U-haul trailer or even fill my two cars up with fuel.  The wife and I will have to grab a few important things, some survival items, our two Beagles and head south. We will need to travel light and head out of town quickly. With tens of millions of other people trying to do the same, it could be a real life and death race against time.  One geologist drew a 600 mile radius around Yellowstone and called it the dead zone.  He felt that anyone living inside the area would be in peril.
The prevailing winds would most likely move the ash toward the south east, well into Texas.  f there is no wind during the eruption, more ash will fall on the western states.  A due south route looks like the best one for me.  This would put more distance between the ash and me.
If Yellowstone starts erupting, my first priority would be to get out of the heavy ash fall zone as quickly as possible. Vehicular traffic from the tens of millions of terrified people trying to leave town at the same time could be so bad, that little progress would be made.  If we donít leave town quickly, we could be caught in a traffic jam as the ash starts to fall.  Volcanic ash is nasty stuff.  Eye and nose protection will be a must.  If the ash is thick enough, it will clog the air filters of any car.  This ash would be a killer if people were left out in it for any period of time.  Even a few inches could be life threatening.  Visibility could be cut down to only a few feet.  As the ash accumulates, it will make driving through it impossible.  People could die in their cars trying to escape.
Although the ash may be moving quite fast as it leaves the volcano, I think it would slow down a lot as it moves away.  There was clear weather over Mount Saint Helens when it erupted back in 1980.  Photos from space tracked the ash from that explosion at a speed of 60MPH.  But, most of the ash only traveled a few hundred miles.  Yellowstone might pack enough punch to send the ash out at highway speeds over much longer distances.  If we assume the ash might move at 60MPH, then it would reach Denver in only 7 or 8 hours.  To stay ahead of it, people would need to be heading out of town as soon as the thing started to erupt.  If the highways are clogged with traffic, moving at only 15MPH, the ash cloud would overtake those cars in 8 hours and they would have moved only 120 miles farther from the epicenter.  A safer distance would be at least 600 miles from Denver, or 1000 miles from Yellowstone.  Even then, there may be some ash coming down.
A quick back of the envelope calculation is terrifying.  A typical highway traffic jam might move at 15MPH.  This works out to about two car lengths per second per lane.  If a total of 100 highway lanes were opened to outgoing traffic, including all the minor back roads, each carrying cars at 15MPH, then in 8 hours, almost 3 million cars might move some 120 miles farther away from Yellowstone.  I donít think that is nearly enough to clear my state of Colorado of cars and people.   Even in good weather, it would take many days to move ten to twenty million people.  The logistics of moving that many people would be a nightmare.  It is almost certain that many people would find themselves trapped by the fast moving ash.
If people did not make it out of town in time, they may not survive for long.  If several feet of ash were to fall onto a home, the weight might be enough to cave in the roof.  Cars, even large trucks my not be able to push through an ash fall with a depth of several feet.  For anyone who survived the initial few days after the eruption, there may not be any relief for a long time.  To be safe, you would have to make the assumption that no local, state or federal government help would be coming to rescue trapped people very quickly.  Those officials would be overwhelmed with the people that did manage to get out of the immediate area.  If Yellowstone erupts, it would be unprecedented.   No nation has ever had to deal with this kind of an emergency.  There is no experience to draw upon.
If you had to leave your home in a hurry, knowing that you may not ever be coming back, what would you take?  What key items would you take to increase your chances of making it out of the danger zone alive?  Iíll cover this subject in additional discussions.  Iíll share with you my thoughts and my list of evacuation items.  Let me know what you think.

January 2010     Issue 5

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