Earthquake Threat in Yellowstone Region Bigger Than First Thought

In a new report that's sure to eventually set your Facebook feed all aflutter with fresh volcanically-charged paranoia, scientists say that the risk for damaging earthquakes in the Yellowstone region is greater than originally thought.

According to the United States Geological Survey, the region—already one of the most seismically hazardous areas in the nation (Yellowstone is a gigantic volcano, remember)—has shown a relative increase in earthquake hazards since the last USGS hazard report in 2006.

It's important to note that earthquakes in the region are more than just a threat to, say, Old Faithful—a major quake could cause damage over an area stretching from Montana to Utah.

University of Utah geophysicist Bob Smith told the Associated Press that the overall net increase since 2006 isn't exactly huge—5 to 10 percent of peak acceleration—but the stakes in the region in terms of life and property are getting higher.

(Without getting too dull geology lecture-y about it, peak acceleration is the largest increase in velocity by an individual chunk of ground measured during an earthquake. It's sort of like measuring the G's you would feel in, say, in the passenger seat of a Bugatti Veyron accelerating from 0 to 60 mph—except that instead of an exotic Italian French Franco-Teutonic sports car it's the actual ground beneath your feet. The greater the acceleration, the greater the potential for damage to buildings, roads, bridges, utilities, you, etc… It's science!)

Anyway, Smith says that the increased seismic risk isn't good news in an already-popular tourist area with a booming population.

"It's an area of well-above-normal earthquake hazard," Smith told the AP. "And now with all the population going in — all the new roads and dams — also high risk."

Smith said that the most dangerous fault in the Greater Yellowstone Area is the Teton Fault, which runs along the base of the breathtakingly gorgeous Teton Range in Grand Teton National Park just south of Yellowstone.

According to researchers, the Teton Fault is capable of producing a quake up to a magnitude 7.5 every 1,600 to 6,000 years. Studies indicate that the last major earthquake along the fault happened roughly 4,800 years ago.

The most recent major earthquake in the region happened on August 17,1959, when a magnitude 7.3 earthquake struck the Hebgen Lake Fault just a few miles northwest of West Yellowstone, Montana, killing at least 28 people—many of whom were buried under a massive landslide which dammed a canyon and created the aptly-named Earthquake Lake.

The quake also rearranged the plumbing for many of Yellowstone's geysers and hot springs—as new thermal features were formed, others died out and still others went all ape-shit and erupted almost continuously for years afterward.

Incidentally, if you're ever up in the West Yellowstone area and haven't been there before, Earthquake Lake is an incredibly worthwhile day trip. The canyon is pretty, the trout fishing along the Madison River is great and the still-visible earthquake damage and landslide area is, to put it mildly, creepy as hell.

The new USGS seismic report comes after a brief road closure in a Yellowstone geyser basin last month caused when an increase in ground temperature and unusually-warm weather caused the pavement to melt, sending the elements of the internet prone to such things into a sadly unsurprising panic.

Ironically, that news came as another study (that didn't get nearly as much attention) indicated that the Yellowstone super-volcano—one of the most studied and speculated-about geological formations in the world—may actually be cooling and dying, albeit over the course of hundreds of thousands to millions of years.

For a larger overview of the geology of the Greater Yellowstone region, along with a number of volcanic rumor-debunking press releases and statements from actual scientists who aren't your weirdo conspiracy-theorist cousin, you should probably check out the USGS Yellowstone Volcano Observatory website here.

Image via Jason M. Vaughn