Yellowstone holds answers to science’s mysteries

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YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. (AP) - A sulfuric-smelling fog filled the November air, rising from bubbling pools on white terraces.

The scene looked like a witches’ brew tucked inside a winter wonderland, one of thousands of reminders in Yellowstone National Park that the world’s largest volcano breathes below the surface.

Chances are you’ve heard of the beast, the one capable of sending 2,000 times more matter into the sky than Mount St. Helens and producing an ash cloud stretching from Wyoming to the East Coast.

Nearly every major publication from the New York Times to National Geographic has written about it and the devastating impacts if it were to erupt.

But fears of a deadly blast might in fact be overblown, according to some scientists. The Yellowstone volcano could even be dying. The last eruption, 70,000 years ago, was a relative poof compared with the climate-changing eruptions hundreds of thousands of years earlier.

Still, the debate over the volcano’s potential reflects one enduring truth about Yellowstone and the geology beneath its surface: The park remains one of the foremost research laboratories in the world, drawing internationally renowned scientists studying everything from earthquakes to the origins of life to, yes, the power of that volcano lurking beneath the ground.

“Yellowstone is so over the top in so many ways it sometimes screams at you the answer that’s happening other places,” said Jacob Lowenstern, scientist in charge of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory.

The fact that it could one day erupt again, covering the western U.S. in ash and molten rock, is simply another thing for scientists to study here.

- World’s largest volcano

In early November, a team of University of Wyoming researchers spread tarps on the snowy ground near white terraces outside Mammoth Hot Springs, where pools are stacked like small mountains filled with crystal-clear water.

“I have gotten radium out of that,” said Ken Sims, a UW geology and geophysics professor and National Geographic explorer. “We should sample down there.”

Sims knelt next to a mound of delicate formations and pulled machines out of boxes and backpacks: a radon detector with lights and a ticker-tape measurement recorder, a pH detector to record acid levels. Both would help him know how the water and gas interact.

“It looks like it’s boiling,” Sims said. “But it is actually from steam or CO2.”

Sims was studying how fast water and gas mix as they rise to the surface. His research could ultimately help scientists understand what causes steam eruptions. If they know how fast steam and water interact in the park, they could better predict when an area will become more volatile.

It’s one of dozens of projects he wants to try involving the volcano that could offer insights into the rest of the world, from the floors of oceans to the peaks of mountains.

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