The End of Days  By Bill Vaughn
Montana has always been one of the most violent places on the planet.

Forget Frankenstein, the Werewolf and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The scariest costumes at the Halloween parties this year were the Conrad “Pineapple Head” Burns, the Jon “Three Fingers” Tester, and the Stan “Blue Man” Jones. Can you imagine anything more horrid than this trio of trick-or-treaters showing up on your porch at the same time, flapping around their goody bags?

It’s appropriate that Montana’s U.S. Senate candidates have the ability by their mere presence to make children weep with terror. After all, this land has always been one of the most violent places on earth.

For example, the greatest floods in the history of the planet started here. The valleys of Western Montana were once filled with 2000 feet of ice water that suddenly exploded through a natural dam with ten times the discharge of all the rivers in the world combined, then thundered 600 miles across Washington and Oregon to the Pacific at speeds of up to 100 miles an hour. This ferocious wall of destruction caused the Columbia and Snake Rivers to flow backwards, scraped off every inch of soil and scree along its course right down to the bedrock, and gouged canyons right into the stone itself. If that wasn’t bad enough, this cataclysm didn’t happen just once, but maybe a hundred times.

The first massive emptying of Glacial Lake Missoula took place 15,000 years ago at the beginning of the end of the last Ice Age. Geologists speculate that time and again over the course of the next 3000 years a glacier oozing south from the retreating continental ice sheet slid into northern Idaho blocking the Clark Fork River, which filled Montana’s deep Rocky Mountain valleys with 3000 square miles of water whose volume was greater than the sum of Lakes Erie and Ontario. When the force of this water overcame the resistance of the dam, all hell broke loose.

The floods carved a giant maze of coulees called the Channeled Scablands in the basalt plateau west of Spokane, bulldozed ripples across these flatlands 50 feet high, threw around boulders weighing 200 tons as if they were schoolyard marbles, piled up mounds of gravel 30 stories tall, and reamed out the Columbia River Gorge, sculpting the palisades windsurfers admire today. Another handiwork of the floods is the remnant of the largest waterfall on the planet, now dry, in breadth and vertical drop three times the size of Niagara. And when these angry floodwaters roared into what is now downtown Portland, Oregon, they were still 400 feet deep. In the end, 50 cubic miles of the earth's skin was ripped off and moved from one place to another by each one of these deluges. Shuttle astronauts can clearly see this vast damage from space.

While it's unknown whether any of North America's first citizens were swept away, a flood of this magnitude today would kill at least a million people, erase the cities of Spokane and Portland, and destroy $150 billion worth of stuff, ten times the property damage of Hurricane Andrew in South Florida a decade ago.

Yellowstone Supervolcano. But there are other disasters waiting in the wings whose appearance on stage is past due, and whose arrival will give us little warning. Most of these ruinous events first occurred during a time when human beings hadn’t been invented yet, or were just a gleam in some little rodent's eye. Now that we’ve bred ourselves up to 6 billion beings the odds are increasing by the hour that at the end of the day we'll be 6 billion corpses.

According to the University of Utah, there were 872 tremors recorded last year under Yellowstone Park. 2005 was a relatively quiet year, and most of these quakes were too mild to be felt. But in the past some Indian tribes once avoided Yellowstone because of all the subterranean commotion. Ferdinand Vandiveer Hayden, a geologist who first explored the area for what would become the United State Geological Survey, named his headquarters on Yellowstone Lake “Earthquake Camp” because of all the rocking and rolling his team experienced there.

You can tune into the USGS website and watch the latest action, recorded continuously by 22 sensors installed across the Park from Pitchstone Plateau to Mammoth Hot Springs. Although this is usually like watching cheese age or the jibber-jabber of meat puppets on C-Span, several times a day the flat lines running across the monitor turn really squiggly. Contained in these hieroglyphics are messages from the apocalyptic demon gathering strength underneath that antic Jellystone of Yogi and Boo Boo.

Its a paradox, but in order to see poignant evidence of the carnage that will be caused by this doomsday beast you have to drive a long ways from Yellowstone, 600 miles east to the gullied prairie near the hamlet of Orchard in northeastern Nebraska. Here, at Ashfall State Park, all the animals are dead. Hundreds of prehistoric rhinos, camels, turtles, birds, saber-toothed deer and three-toed horses simply dropped in their tracks, a kind of animal Jonestown. Discovered in a ravine next to a cornfield on Melvin Colson’s farm in 1971 by paleontologist Mike Vorhees, the carcasses have been partially excavated exactly where they fell in order to give visitors a sense of life and death at a Nebraska waterhole 10 million years ago.

At first researchers were baffled by this mysterious tableau mort. First, most of the skeletons are complete and intact, a rare find in fossil circles because scavengers and the forces of nature tend to scatter around the remains of a dead thing, sometimes rearranging them with those of other dead things. But incredibly, at Ashfall whole communities of animals have been preserved, and with them clues about their behavior and daily life that just aren’t available anywhere else. Here are double-tusked bull rhinos struck down in their prime, a mom rhino touching noses with her two kids in their final moments together, another mom harboring in her pelvis the skeleton of her fetal baby, and over there’s a female nursing her calves, her mouth packed with a wad of the grass seeds and leaves she was chewing on when she died.

Second, all of the skeletons are spotted with a crumbly white material that Vorhees thought at first was a mineral deposit, but later determined was an organic lattice growing on the bone. Something extraterrestrial? Scientists who examined samples in 1972 were bewildered, as well. But to add to the mystery they decided that what they were looking at was the ravages of hypertrophic pulmonary osteoarthropathy, a condition among certain animals—today it afflicts mainly dogs—in which for unknown reasons some chronic lung diseases such as tuberculosis cause soft new bone tissue to grow on top of old hard bone. Scientists were bewildered by the fact that not just one species showed this growth, but all of them, mammal, bird and amphibian alike. Clearly, the exact same equal-opportunity calamity had laid each beast low.

What’s also striking about these vignettes is the absence of violence, and the palpable air of repose. The stillness of the moment between life and death here is evocative of those excavations of Roman families killed when the eruption of Vesuvius covered Pompeii with 10 feet of ash in the year 79. In fact, the Nebraska fossils were found buried in ash so deep it could only have been produced by a wicked big volcano. As the debris began falling from this eruption the animals probably clustered around their waterhole in order to rinse their mouths and throats, and to stay close to the food. But as the wind swirled the ash from the flatlands down into the depression containing their oasis, conditions grew more lethal. Its speculated by Karl Reinhard, a paleo-pathologist specializing in the causes of ancient deaths, that the glassy, incinerated shards of rock breathed in by the animals at Orchard scoured their lungs, which filled with blood, a condition producing that consequent weird bone growth associated with pulmonary disease, and a gradual, agonizing death. Not a pretty way to go. Their bodies were buried by more than eight feet of ash.
So where did all this stuff come from? Nebraska is not famous for its geothermal action. The closest volcanoes, Mt. Rainier, Mt. Baker, and those other bad boys and girls in the Cascade Range, are 1200 miles northwest of here. Then a geologist named Mike Bonnichen realized that an extinct volcanic field in the Bruneau Jarbridge area of southwestern Idaho blew its brains out around the same time as the mass killings at Ashfall. Named after two excellent whitewater rivers, the area yielded samples of ash whose chemical composition matched that of the ash in Nebraska. Scientists had their killer. But the magnitude of the crime was mind-boggling. For this much ash to be deposited so far from Idaho could only mean one thing: ultravolcano, something only prehistoric humans have ever witnessed.

In Montana the sole apparent effect of the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980 was a record-setting harvest that summer of apples and cherries. Washington State didn’t fare so well, however. The eruption killed 57 fools who ignored copious warnings to stay away. It also slaughtered 7,000 big game animals, and 12 million Chinook and Coho salmon, not to mention a gazillion birds and other small beasts. Property damage was estimated at $1 to $2 billion.

But compared to the handful of known ultravolcanoes in the world (and by their own admission some that scientists don’t know about), Mt. St. Helens is a wuss. For example, take the most recent eruption of one of these über-beasts, which exist because of unique geological formations. When Toba, on the north end of the island of Sumatra, went off 74,000 years ago it spewed material onto the surface 10,000 times the amount belched by Mt. St. Helens. The sound it made was the loudest thing a human being has ever experienced, literally the shot heard round the world.  (By way of comparison, in 1881 Krakatoa was heard only as far as a mere 3000 miles away). While its unknown how many Stone Age brutes were killed by the Toba eruption, the ash cloud and the sulphuric acid aerosols from Sumatra floated in the atmosphere for years, blocking energy from the sun, causing a world-wide volcanic winter in which air temperatures plunged to those of the last Ice Age, and reducing the number of human beings to a point just this side of extinction.

Unlike conventional volcanoes such as, say, Mt. Fuji, no artful cone marks the wrath of Toba. There is, however, a crater lake 60 miles long and 36 miles wide, a hole blasted in the earth that vulcanologists call a caldera. The theory goes like this: Across the planet there are lots of places where the boundary between the superheated underworld and the cold surface of the planet is relatively thin. Or in the case of an active volcano such as Mt. Etna on Sicily, nonexistent. Normal volcanoes break forth from these portals to Hades on average 50 times a year and then go about their relatively harmless coughing and spitting up and cone-building.

But in the case of an ultravolcano, for unknown reasons the molten rock, the magma, stays underground and grows into a vast subterranean reservoir.  The magma gradually melts away layers of the crust from the inside, and the magma dome swells with trapped gases such as the dioxides of sulfur and carbon dissolved in the melted stone, forcing the crust to bulge like a bag of microwave popcorn. Finally, an earthquake rents a fissure in this bulge and the thing goes kablooey, discharging ferocious and unimaginably enormous columns of ash and pumice and streams of magma 10 to 50 miles into the atmosphere. So then its the end of the world as we know it.

The amount of fallout from Toba would have covered half the United States to a depth of several feet. Sizable amounts of Toba vomit have been found in core samples under the Bay of Bengal and in India 1900 miles away from the eruption. Dense floods of hot gas and pulverized rock from the eruption, called pyroclastic flows, sprang from the earth and, traveling at hundreds of miles an hour, jetted across 8,000 square miles of Sumatra, an area the size of New Jersey, covering the land in some places with 1800 feet of junk. Over the eons the caldera, the collapsed roof of the emptied magma chamber, filled with water.

Now imagine the same apocalyptic passion play performed in Wyoming. The question isnt if such a smashup could happen in our fine Republic—which at least until 911 we had come to think of as a fun, safe and eternally enduring place with many choice bargains—but when.

In a serendipitous manner it was the National Aeronautics and Space Administration that revealed the demon lurking under Yellowstone. Before using its newly developed infrared photography to map areas of the moon prior to sending the first humans there in 1968, NASA took some shots of the Yellowstone area on the maiden voyage of its scanning satellite.

Around the same time a geologist named Robert Christiansen studying Yellowstone rocks concluded that they were composed of ash compacted under pressure. But when he searched for the source he couldn’t find a thing. After all, there aren’t any pretty volcanic cones around, nor ugly calderas that a person can see. Then he came across NASAs startling infrared images. And it was clear that there was much more to Yellowstone than farting mud pots and antic geysers.

There is a volcano building under Yellowstone, as it turns out, and its gargantuan. In fact, most of the Park is a caldera, or rather three overlapping calderas. Theyre difficult to see using normal aerial photography because lava flows have obscured their form. Using seismographs to reveal the structure of the underworld, a vulcanologist named Bob Smith determined that the magma chamber is 24 to 30 miles long, 12 miles wide and it has a thickness of about 6 miles, a growing, brooding pus bag of molten rock that’s spread across a third to a half of the area beneath the Park.

The images from space revealed another shock. The three Yellowstone calderas are only the most recent in an archipelago of mammoth craters, stretching on a track from southwest Idaho 300 miles northeast into Wyoming. One of the oldest of these is Bruneau Jarbridge, the rhino killer of Ashfall.

 To visualize what’s going on underneath us right now, and for the last 17 million years, think of a rusty old slab of steel inching along inexorably above the jet of a flaming blowtorch. Once in a while the blowtorch burns a hole in the sheet and fire shoots through the hole until the steel moves on and presents a more resistant part of itself to the flames. Just like the blowtorch, under the Pacific Northwest lurks one of these rare hot spots, which is stationary while the earth above it moves. Creeping southwest at about the rate your fingernails grow, this sheet of real estate is called the North American plate. It’s the grinding of this plate against another sheet called the Pacific plate that causes earthquakes along the San Andreas fault in California. Not only is the Yellowstone hotspot responsible for a succession of monstrous eruptions of ash and rock, it has flooded 200,000 square miles across six states with seas of basaltic lava.

The Yellowstone ultravolcano erupted 2 million years ago, then again 1.2 million years ago and most recently 650,000 years ago. If this is a pattern, then Yellowstone is past due to kick the worlds butt again. Although scientists at the USGS are confident that an eruption is not eminent, at least until martini time today, the ground shows undeniable signs of ultravolcano-type restlessness.

The 1959 earthquake, registering a whopping 7.5 on the Richter Scale and killed 28 people. And in 1975 a quake near Norris Geyser registed 6.1.  Plus, surveys reveal that the ground surface near the center of the Yellowstone caldera rose more than 3 feet from 1923 to 1985, then fell back six inches from 1985 to 1992. Studies of the shoreline at the outlet of Yellowstone Lake show that three times during the past 10,000 years the calderas center has bulged about 65 feet and then receded. In 1971 while surveying the Park Bob Smith, the vulcanologist, realized that the water on the south side of Yellowstone Lake was lapping against the lower trunks of some shoreline trees. He figured that the whole Park was tilting—the north side rising, and the south side subsiding.

To picture what will happen during the next Yellowstone eruption consider the most recent one. It blasted a hole 53 by 28 miles big, and spewed forth ground-hugging waves of superheated ash, pumice, and gases that devastated an area of more than 3,000 square miles. These pyroclastic flows congealed to form a layer of rock called the Lava Creek Tuff, which is 240 cubic miles in volume, enough rock to bury Wyoming 13 feet under, or to cover the Lower 48 with a sheet of stone five inches thick. You can see this wall of rock exposed by erosion at Tuff Cliff, a Jellystone attraction along the lower Gibbon River.

Say the ultravolcano erupts without warning on a typical summer day. Including Jellystone tourists, 60,000 people in this thinly populated region would be incinerated almost immediately. And if the lava flows are especially strong, and they decide to visit cities as far away as, say, Boise, you might be looking at casualty figures of several hundred thousand. But then the real trouble for humankind would begin, as the gigantic plume of ash and skyward-driven magma begins to circle the globe, blotting out the sun. How cold it will get, and how long it will stay cold, can only be guessed at, now that global warming seems to be a fact.

The Pinatubo eruption in the Philippines in 1991 registered a 6 on the Volcano Explosivity Index and reduced the temperature of the planet a half a degree. This was ten times more powerful than Mt. St. Helens, which was only a VEI5 eruption. The VEI6 eruption of Krakatoa in 1881 caused the Year Of  No Summer across northern Europe, in which gardens, fields and orchards yielded no produce. The Yellowstone ultravolcano will probably be a super-colossal VEI8, which would make it a thousand times more powerful than Krakatoa.

It’s a reasonable guess that without enough sunlight to grow food people will start killing each other off on a regular and increasingly mass basis within a year after the shit hits the fan. That is, unless, everyone develops a fanatic taste for mushrooms. The United States would probably invade Canada and Mexico, our nearest, weakest neighbors, and confiscate their petroleum and nuclear energy industries in the name of the survival of North America. Hydroelectric energy would fail as the waterways froze. And eventually the energy it would take to pump more oil or mine more uranium would finally render these enterprises pointless. There might be some wind power, or maybe weather as we know it would die in the absence of light and heat, who knows. Anyway, after two years of volcanic winter the outbreak of a shooting war in the battle of the classes would plunge America into chaos or an unstable police state.

After three years, and then four and five, the sole survivors of the Yellowstone ultravolcano would be holed up in fortified bunkers like the Mall of America (see Gift With Purchase on the Dark Acres home page), the Pentagon, or the catacombs under the Greenbriar Hotel in West Virginia, groups isolated from each other, maybe producing a few taters or snap beans under Gro-Lites electrified by car batteries, which wouldn’t be needed in the cars because there wouldn’t be any more gasoline. Shopping, as we know it, would probably cease.

Beaverhead Impact Crater. For astronomers the event of the century was not just the collision in July 1994 of a comet with Jupiter, but their prediction of this mammoth smash-up 14 months to the hour before it happened, and in the exact place. Discovered in 1993, Shoemaker-Levy 9 had been snatched out of its solar orbit by the enormous gravitational field of the father of planets and pulverized into twenty-one chunkies each at least a kilometer in diameter. When Fragment A crashed into the Jovian stratosphere with the force of 225 megatons of TNT, almost 12000 times bigger than Fat Man, it emitted a pulse of light clearly visible to earth-bound telescopes. Astronomers were surprised by this display; but the pyrotechnics that followed astounded them.
Over the next two weeks the rest of the chunkies continued to plow into Jupiter like gasoline tankers crashing into a foggy pile-up on I-90. Then along came Fragment G, which turned out to be considerably more interesting than its name. When it struck Jupiter with an estimated energy equivalent to 6 million megatons of TNT, about 600 times more powerful than the estimated arsenal of the world, a fireball rose 1800 miles above the Jovian cloud-tops, burning a dark scar in the big gassy planet the size of the earth.

The same thought struck all the viewers at home: What if this comet had smacked into us instead of the Jovians? Because this was the first time in history the death of a celestial object had been predicted more than a few minutes in advance scientists were encouraged about their chances of tracking celestial objects that mean us harm. Among other agencies, NASA and an international consortium called the Spaceguard Foundation began plotting the orbits of Earth-Crossing Asteroids. About 320 of them and their orbits have been have been catalogued so far.

Sponsored by NASA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Sentry System currently catalogs 45 rocks whose orbits will intersect that of Terra’s within a century. In terms of its probability for smashing into earth Number One on this Top 45 list is an asteroid about 800 feet in diameter called 1997 XR2 that’s expected to make a swipe at us in the year 2l0l. The odds of an actual collision are miniscule, but could increase depending on numerous unseen factors.

The hundred or so sky-watchers world-wide who are tracking such things believe that an object called 1950 DA, which disappeared for 50 years and was rediscovered on New Year’s Eve of 2000, has a one in three-hundred chance of colliding with earth the day before St. Patrick’s Day in the year 2880, extinguishing the Irish and whatever other life forms on the planet eight centuries from now. But scientists like to boast that 1950 DA could be dissuaded from its intentions with something as simple as a coating of chalk, which would change its trajectory.

What NASA scientists don’t like to dwell on is the fact that since 90 percent of even the very large Near Earth Objects haven’t yet been discovered, and considering the earth’s record as a celestial punching bag, there’s no sure way these well-meaning experts can say that the planet is safe, as we speak, for even the next twenty-four hours.
Shoemaker-Levy 9 scared us good, and it also accelerated the search for earth’s own pock marks.  Until the 1980s many scientists believed that although there are thousands of impact craters clearly visible on the Moon and Mars these structures are rare on earth because the objects that caused them elsewhere usually burned up in our atmosphere before they hit the ground. Well, yes, there’s that poster girl of impact structures, the Barringer Crater in Arizona. Famous because that’s where the final act of Star Man was set, Barringer was gouged a mere 50,000 years ago by a meteorite 150 feet across, composed of 300,000 tons of nickel and iron, which hit the ground at 40,000 miles per hour.

Most of the 170 big impact structures catalogued so far on every continent aren’t recognizable as such. At Chicxulub you can’t see on the ground, or from the air, any nice, round hole like that of the Wolfe Creek crater in Western Australia, for example. Because the hole in the Yucatan has been covered by hundreds of feet of limestone and sea water so there’s nothing to see but except jungle and ocean. Geologists identified the Chixculub site in 1989 by analyzing rocks that reveal damage done in ways that can’t be confused with anything other than cosmic collision. And then infrared photographs from on high were taken that reveal the subterranean form of the thing.

While unique in many ways the Yucatan site is not alone. Most Americans are no more than a road trip away from one impact structure or another, so many have been discovered in the last generation.

A very scary boogieman whose mayhem you can actually see was discovered in 1989 in the Tendoy Mountains of southwestern Montana. The Beaverhead impact structure is 36 miles wide and was caused by an asteroid six miles in diameter that hit the earth 600 million years ago. Brainless organisms such as jellyfish were the only life forms on the planet at the time, and it’s unknown what the effect of this mountain-sized boulder might have been on them. What is compelling about the Beaverhead is the beautiful red quartzite all around that was shocked by a stupendous blunt trauma, creating closely spaced fracture lines throughout unmistakable formations called shatter cones.
You can buy pieces of Beaverhead shatter cone, although they aren’t cheap. One company is offering a ragged 73-pound hunk for $1300 that resembles the wings of an angel. Advertising shows the fragment borne aloft on the shoulders of a classic Greek sculpture of Atlas in order to show its size. But instead of Atlas a more appropriate beast of burden would be a human skeleton.

Copyright © 2006 Bill Vaughn