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By Tim Washburn
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Tim Washburn
All rights reserved.
Lower Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park 09:13 Tuesday, June 21
Jessica Mayfield takes a moment to survey the crowd, smiling at how odd it is to see people sitting ass to elbow in a 180-degree arc with nothing but a barren mound of chalky dirt in front of them. She marvels at the diversity of the people as some chat animatedly with those next to them while others sit, their gaze riveted. But the reason for the gathering becomes apparent when Old Faithful geysers up from mother earth. Oohs and aahs accompany the whir and click of too many cameras to count, many Christmas gifts that had escaped their boxes only for a trip to the nation's oldest national park. Jess watches the amazement on her children's faces as the geyser shoots the steamy water nearly 150 feet into the sky.
After several moments the water retreats back underground, and Jess turns her gaze to the distance. The sage-covered hills and pristine forests of lodgepole pine provide a backdrop for the transparent pools of water whose steamy tendrils drift toward the azure sky. But, as a geologist, Jess knows Yellowstone's lush vegetation and the clear mountain streams are obscuring a scarred landscape. Scarred not only from glacial movement over centuries, but scarred more deeply by three earth-altering eruptions from one of the largest supervolcanoes on the planet.
As Jess scans the crowd again, she wonders how many of the tourists know about the seething, simmering cauldron of fire lurking beneath their feet. Responsible for the park's most unusual features — the geysers, fumaroles, mud pots, and hot springs — the caldera volcano is three times the size of Manhattan Island and stretches for miles in every direction.
Jess is startled back into the present when a deep rumble cracks across the landscape and the earth underfoot gyrates like a wobbly plate balanced on a stick.
"What was that, Mommy?" nine-year-old Madison asks, craning her neck to look up at her mother.
"I think that was an earthquake, honey," Jess replies. She turns to her husband, who is seated on the other side of their two children. "Matt, maybe we should head for another section of the park for today."
"Why? Yellowstone has small earthquakes all the time."
"That didn't feel small to me." Jess says.
"C'mon, Jess, it's one small earthquake. Besides, Tucker's meeting us for lunch at the inn."
"Has he texted back?" Jess asks. Half Cherokee, with deep bronze–colored skin and dark, cascading hair that brushes across her shoulders with each turn of her head, Jess is tall and willowy. With dark, deep-set eyes, she has the high forehead and broad nose of her ancestors.
"Not yet, but cell service here sucks." Matt, a banker by trade, likes to think of himself as an amateur scientist. A big-boned, broad-shouldered man, Matt has red hair and sapphire-colored eyes. He and Jess are as different, complexionwise, as any two people can be. Matt leans in to speak to Maddie. "Hey, I know something you don't know." He glances at his wife and receives an eye-roll for his efforts.
Maddie overexaggerates a sigh. "What, Dad?" Maddie received a larger portion of' her father's genes. She has curly, strawberry red hair, and across her face and shoulders there's a splash of freckles that darken during the summer months.
"Did you know that we're sitting on top of a volcano right this minute?"
Madison's gaze sweeps across the landscape. "I don't see a volcano. I think you're just —"
A louder rumble sounds, followed by a more violent tremor. This one elicits a few shouts of nervous surprise.
"Probably just an aftershock," Matt mumbles. "Anyway, there is a volcano here but it's not like normal volcanoes that look like mountains."
"How could it be a volcano then?"
"It's called a caldera. The last time the volcano erupted most of the land collapsed back into the magma chamber."
Maddie arches her barely visible eyebrows. "Is it going to erupt again?"
"Oh sure, someday." Matt chuckles. "But the volcano hasn't erupted in ... oh ... about 640,000 years. I think we'll be safe awhile longer."
Jess leans over to whisper in her husband's ear. "I really think we should return to the lodge."
"Why?" He waves his arm in a wide arc. "Look, no one else seems to be alarmed."
Jessica looks around. A group of Japanese students is huddled in a clump while a park ranger snaps a picture. On the left, two small children, both red-faced from too much sun, wrap their arms around each other while Mom clicks away. No one seems to be panicking. But something is gnawing at Jess's gut. She turns and begins whispering again. "Well, I'm concerned. The last tremor was significantly stronger. And it wasn't an aftershock."
Matt leans away, rubbing his ear to dry the moisture from his wife's breath. "C'mon, Jess, this place is lousy with earthquakes."
Jessica grabs his shirt and pulls him closer. "Maybe so, but do you want to be sitting next to a lake of boiling water if there's a larger quake?"
"Dad, can we go now?" Maddie asks.
Jessica stands and grabs for her daughter's hand. "That's a good idea, Maddie girl."
"Mom, I'm still taking pictures," Mason says, never taking his eye away from the viewfinder of his camera, a recent birthday present. Mason, twelve, is the polar opposite of his sister. He has his mother's bronze coloring and dark hair, which he prefers to wear longer than his father would like.
"We'll go as soon as Mason is through," Matt says.
Maddie crosses her arms and sighs. "How many pictures of this stupid thing does he need? Besides, it's not even doing anything. And I thought we were meeting up with Uncle Tucker."
Matt rests a hand on his daughter's shoulder only to have her shrug it off. "Honey, this is a family trip. Besides, Uncle Tucker won't be here until lunch."
Maddie's would-be tantrum is short-lived when another ground tremor forces her to uncross her arms to reach for her mother's hand.
"Matt, that was no small earthquake." Jessica snags Mason's arm. "C'mon, we're going back to the inn right now."
Mason groans, but relents, letting the camera dangle from the strap around his neck. Matt drapes an arm across Jess's shoulders as they walk toward the Old Faithful Inn. He leans in to whisper in her ear. "I guess the only tremors we're used to are when the bed's rocking."
Jess shrugs from under his arm, pointing toward the visitor center. "If there's nothing to worry about, why are there a dozen park rangers headed this way?" Jess stops, plants her feet, and turns to her husband. "I really think we should leave the park altogether."
"C'mon, honey, we've only been here a couple of days. I'm telling you, there's nothing to worry about."
Maddie latches on to her father's hand. "Daddy, I'm scared."CHAPTER 2
Yellowstone Center for Resources, Mammoth Hot Springs, Wyoming
Dr. Tucker Mayfield, the chief scientist at Yellowstone, glances at the clock and cringes. He had promised lunch with his brother's family, but that was before the current earthquake swarm threw a wrench into his plans. Tucker is tall and husky like his brother, and they share the same eye color, blue, but that's where the similarity ends. Tucker's hair is dark and, while Matt's skin often burns with sun exposure, Tucker's darkens to a deep tan during the summer months. With a Ph.D. in geology, he's one of the youngest people ever to hold the position of scientist-in-charge.
Tucker clicks on his computer mouse to refresh the webicorder display for the seismometer located at Old Faithful. Although earthquake swarms are a fairly common occurrence at the park, what he sees on the monitor ratchets up his concern. The earthquakes are increasing in intensity, pegging the high threes on the magnitude scale. And when you're sitting on one of the largest volcanoes on earth, any seismic activity is a concern.
Tucker pushes out of his chair and heads down the hall to the Spatial Analysis Center. It's not as grand as it sounds, simply a room with a half a dozen computers and the same number of people working on them. He rolls a vacant chair over to Rachael Rollins's workspace and takes a seat. After completing her doctoral dissertation on the park's unique water systems, Rachael is Yellowstone's hydrology expert. "Any changes in the hydrothermal systems?" Tucker asks.
"I've been checking. Temps are all within norms, and I haven't had any reports of unusual activity. But if the seismic activity continues to ramp up, I wouldn't be surprised to see some anomalies. Are you worried about the caldera?"
"Worried? No. Let's just say I'm a little concerned. The GPS units at Old Faithful and Yellowstone Lake are indicating some pretty rapid ground deformation."
Rachael scrolls to the Global Positioning System's website and logs in. "Two inches of upward deformation around the east side of the lake." She glances at the timestamps on the data. "Over a three-hour period?"
"Yes. Now check the data for Old Faithful."
Scooting her computer mouse around the pad, Rachael clicks on the geyser's GPS data feed. "Almost three inches. And during the same three-hour period." She turns to face Tucker. "That much uplift is significant."
"I know, and that data is nearly two hours old. I've requested more frequent data dumps from the GPS units. Might take them a half a day to reconfigure the system."
Rachael crosses her arms and leans back in her chair, staring at the deformation numbers. A product of a biracial marriage, she has latte-colored skin and sports a head of tightly curled black hair that bounces with each movement. There's a splash of darker freckles across her nose and cheeks, but it's her eyes, colored a Caribbean Sea green, that grab your immediate attention. At five-eight, she's long and lean. "What do you think is causing the deformation?"
"I don't think there's any doubt the magma chamber is responsible. But it could simply be gas expansion."
"Maybe ... but could magma be moving toward the surface?" Rachael asks as she leans forward and clicks back to the seismic feeds on her computer.
"For our sake —" "Tucker, a larger quake just rocked the Old Faithful area."
Tucker leans forward for a closer look. "Jesus, that's substantially larger than any of the others. What do you think for magnitude?"
"Upper fours. The strongest we've seen in months." She turns to face Tucker. "Okay, mark me down as officially concerned. If these earthquakes continue to increase in scale, we're in for a very long day."CHAPTER 3
University Seismic Observation Lab, Salt Lake City, Utah
On the first floor of the university's geology building, undergrad student Josh Tolbert, running on coffee and Red Bull, is cramming for today's exam in structural geology and tectonics. His right leg jackhammers up and down as he reads through his notes again while occasionally glancing up at the eight large video screens displaying real-time seismic data for Yellowstone.
As Josh struggles to remember which of the continental plates are convergent and which are divergent, the computer monitors in the lab chirp in unison. "What in the hell is that?" he mutters. His gaze sweeps the empty room in search of a professor before he remembers that today is Tuesday, staff meeting day. He clicks through the seismometers, and the large, squiggly lines grow larger near the center of the park. When the seismometer located at Old Faithful pops onto the screen he shouts, "Oh shit," and jumps up from his chair, hurrying out of the lab. Like Wile E. Coyote, his feet scramble for traction on the polished linoleum flooring as he rushes toward the conference room down the hall. His right hand skims the concrete wall for balance, sending announcements and lecture programs raining onto the floor. He pounds down the door lever and barges into the conference room, wheezing. "Dr. Snider, I ... need you ... in the observation room."
"What is it, Josh?" Dr. Snider asks in his patented patient-professor's voice.
"Sir" — he pauses to take a breath — "there are earthquakes occurring at Yellowstone."
"That's not terribly unusual, Josh, but thanks for notifying us." Dr. Snider turns back to the group. "As I was saying —"
"Professor, I really think you should take a look."
As if acceding to the wishes of a petulant child, Dr. Snider says, "Okay, Josh, I'll have a look." He turns back to those parked around the wooden table. "Let's adjourn, folks. I think we've accomplished what we needed to accomplish for the week." He turns and clamps a hand on Josh's shoulder. "Let's go see what's got you all riled up, young man." With a Ph.D. in geophysics, Dr. Eric Snider is head of the university's seismology program, which includes oversight of the seismometers at Yellowstone.
There is a total lack of urgency as Dr. Snider ambles along the hallway. "You staying here for grad school, Josh?"
Josh, working hard to slow his pace while his brain screams Run, doesn't respond. Instead, he glances at his mentor, saying, "Professor, I think we should hurry."
"You young people are always in a hurry. What has you so worried, Josh?"
"Lots of things. Yellowstone is a very unstable area. What happens if these earthquakes trigger a volcanic eruption?"
"You need to worry about finding yourself a nice young girl," Snider says, chuckling. But the chuckles die in his throat when he and Josh turn into the lab and Snider sees the data on the screens. His treasured Montblanc pen slips from his grasp, clinking to the linoleum floor. "Josh, run back down the hall and tell everyone to hustle in here."
Josh's gaze sweeps across the video displays. "The earthquakes are swarming and getting stronger, aren't they?"
"Josh, hustle up now. We've got a lot of work to do."
Josh stifles the I told you so that lingers on the tip of his tongue and rushes through the door for another race down the hall, his heart hammering faster than hummingbird wings, and not just from the physical exertion.
* * *
(Editor's Note: All interviews were conducted by Casey Cartwright as she traveled between survivor camps located throughout the southeastern United States while working on her master's thesis.)
Camp 2–Clearwater, Florida
Interview: Paul from Provo, UT — geology grad student
"The tension and excitement in the seismology lab were palpable. And the tension really ratcheted up when the seismograms indicated the earthquakes were intensifying. Dr. Snider was running around like a wild man. Then we started getting information from the GPS units located at the park. I think everyone knew then that something big was going to happen. It's one of those moments that occur once in a lifetime, like where you were on 9/11 or when JFK was shot. I'll remember being in that room for the rest of my life."CHAPTER 4
U.S. Geological Survey Yellowstone Volcano Observatory, Menlo Park, California
Dr. Jeremy Lyndsey, chief scientist for the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory, curses under his breath as he wipes at the residue that his breakfast burrito burped onto his freshly laundered shirt. In the middle of his efforts, his office phone buzzes. Frustrated, he tosses the remainder of the burrito into the garbage and grabs the phone.
Before he can even say hello, Dr. Eric Snider says, "Yellowstone is experiencing an intense earthquake swarm."
"Good morning to you, too, Eric. What magnitudes are you seeing?"
"The last one was a little over 4.2. And that follows several quakes in the high threes."
Lyndsey wiggles the mouse to wake his computer, then logs into the seismic feeds. "They're nearly unrelenting, aren't they?"
"Yes, but that's not what concerns me. Look at the rapid increase in magnitude."
"Earthquakes in the low fours are fairly uncommon, but not unheard of for the park," he mumbles into the phone while scrolling through the webicorder displays. "It doesn't appear any of the tremors have exceeded previous levels."
"Yet," Snider says. "Pull up the GPS data. We have increasing uplift out by the lake over the past couple of hours. Some as much as two inches. When's the last time you've seen ground deformation numbers like that?"
"Been a while. But again, not unheard of. Is there any unusual hydrothermal activity?" Lyndsey asks.
"Don't know. Tucker is next on my list of calls."
"Can you have some of your grad students plot the seismic waves to see if there have been any obvious changes in the magma chamber?"
"They're already feeding the data into the mainframe, but it's going to be a slow process. I'm not sure what that's going to tell us, anyway. We know the levels fluctuate somewhat because of the gaseous nature of the magma."
Excerpted from Cataclysm by Tim Washburn. Copyright © 2016 Tim Washburn. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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