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Episode 4: Shake, Rattle, And Blow

Kids Ask Why
Kids Ask Why
Episode 4: Shake, Rattle, And Blow

Wyoming is the home to spectacular natural events both historic and current. Kacyn Rooney explores the history of Yellowstone’s supervolcano with Mike Poland, scientist-in-charge of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory. She gets an expert’s opinion about the chances of another supervolcano eruption anytime soon. Jackson Olson interviews meteorologist Tim Troutman to find out about tornado alley, how tornadoes are formed, and where the biggest tornadoes have occurred in Wyoming. Jackson also receives some great advice about how to keep safe during a tornado.

Kacyn Rooney

Hi, my name is Kacyn. I have a new puppy I named Blu. I like to play piano and practice French when I am not dancing or doing Gymnastics. I enjoy learning, and really enjoy nature. Thanks for listening!

Mike Poland

Mike is a research geophysicist with the Cascades Volcano Observatory and the current Scientist-in-Charge of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory.  His area of specialization is volcano geodesy, which emphasizes the surface deformation and gravity fields associated wth volcanic activity.  This work involves the use of space-based tecnologies, like Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar (InSAR), as well as ground-based techniques, like microgravity surveys.  Mike has taken part in studies on a variety of volcanic systems in the United states, including Mount St. Helens and other volcanoes of the Pacific Northwest,  Kilauea and Mauna Loa volcanoes in Hawaii, and the Yellowstone caldera.  His recent work has focused on using gravity change over time to understand the character of the fluids that drive volcanic unrest, and also on the potential of satellite data to improve forecasts of future changes in volcanic activity.

Jackson Olson

Jackson is eleven years old and is in 6th grade.  He loves learning facts about geography, chemistry, and history.  He likes  spending time with his brother and three sisters.  He also enjoys playing the piano, running with the middle school cross country team, and adding to his coin collection.  One day,  he would like to visit every state, every continent, and maybe even outer space.  

Tim Troutman

Tim is the Warning Coordination Meteorologist, National Weather Service, Riverton, Wyoming. He is passionate about serving our emergency manager and media partners in the western and Central Wyoming region with the latest updated forecasts and warnings, which also results in the public also receiving the most timely and accurate warnings from the National Weather Service as possible. Warning preparedness is a huge focus of his job and it is of the utmost importance to him to help the residents and our partners to be as prepared as possible.

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Why, why, why, why? Why do they call it the Yellowstone Caldera?

Why?Why? Why? Was there ever an EF 5 tornado ever recorded in Wyoming? 

Welcome to the Kids Ask Why podcast where kids ask the questions. A production by Wyoming Public Media and the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.

KACYN ROONEY:  My name is Kacyn and I live in Cody, Wyoming. My subject is the Yellowstone Volcano. How I got interested in Yellowstone Volcano is I watched a video on it. And I kept wondering about it. So I started looking things up. Some of the things that I looked up didn’t seem true. So I asked my specialist Mike Poland, the scientist in charge of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory. I’ve been to Yellowstone a few times. And like, it seems impossible that there can be a volcano, like just right by Cody, Wyoming. And like, if it erupts, it’ll probably be in Wyoming. I don’t think they could do that. But then when it happens, you’re like, oh, no.

MIKE POLAND:  So you know, Yellowstone has sort of two types of eruptions. And the type that everybody’s heard about are really big explosions, really huge explosions that just blanket the whole region in ash. But those are rare. The last one happened hundreds of thousands of years ago. And there’s not really any sign that there’s anything like that coming anytime soon. But the other kind of eruption are lava flows. Not quite like Hawaii where the red rock starts flowing. It’s more like a light colored rock. And it’s not red when it comes out because it’s pretty much solid when it comes out of the ground. So it’s a different composition. And there aren’t really any big explosions that go along with it. So if one of those sorts of things happened, you would get like a whole bunch of rock coming out of the ground in the National Park. But it might not even affect Cody or some of the areas around there that much. And those happen a little bit more frequently than the explosions. The last one of those was 70,000 years ago. So it’s still not that common compared to how long ago Kilauea was.

KACYN:  Like in class, we were talking about volcanoes and Mr. Krubeck, he showed this, he showed us this video. And it was this video of a volcano erupting. Mr. Krubeck called them the three sisters. They’re like three volcanoes and then it erupted but like with big rocks, and like ashes and everything. And so the people, they took this video, and you could see the volcano as soon as it went up. A couple seconds later, the clouds just moved all the way to the side. And then the big, like shockwave in the water. PSSHH! It was like, gosh.

Smoke spews Thursday from the glowing dome of the La Soufrière volcano on St. Vincent, Caribbean.
University of the West Indies Seismic Research Centre via Reuters

MIKE:  Yeah, the amount of force that volcanoes can generate is amazing. There’s a volcano in the Caribbean right now that’s erupting. And I’ve seen some satellite images. And when it explodes, you can actually see like a shockwave coming out from all the clouds away from the island.

KACYN: Yeah, that’s what the video did. It’s like PSSHH.

MIKE:  Yeah, the power behind these explosions is huge. Some of the biggest explosions. I think one of the biggest noises ever recorded in human history was the big eruption in Krakatoa in Indonesia in 1883. The sound from that explosion, they could measure it going around the world multiple times. So it was like a giant noise that just kept ringing around the planet. 

KACYN:  Gosh. Where are some areas that Yellowstone Volcano would cover if it erupted?

Basaltic lava at Sheepeaters Cliff, Yellowstone National Park Brantley, S. R.. Public domain

MIKE:  Well, it depends on what kind of eruption, if you’re thinking like a lava flow, then it would just cover an area in the park. And in fact, if you go into the park, you can actually see these lava flows. They’re huge. They look like cliffs. If you go to Old Faithful, basically all around you you’re kind of in a valley there, but all around you there are these cliffs pretty much everywhere high ground, those are all lava flows that were moving, you know, hundreds of thousands of years ago and then just froze in place. Now if it were a big explosion, it depends on the size of the explosion, so the bigger the explosion, the more area can be covered. If it was one of these really big, catastrophic explosions right near Yellowstone, you might get hundreds of feet of ash that were covering the ground. And then it thins away as you get farther and farther out to where it would just be less than an inch.

KACYN:  It’s cool. Like, it’s not cool, like if it happens, but like, it’s like when you hear about it’s cool. 

MIKE: It’s amazing, right? 

KACYN:  Yeah. What is the next time it might erupt?

MIKE:  Well, that’s a really good question and we don’t have the perfect answer for that. When a volcano isn’t doing much, and Yellowstone is actually very quiet, it has earthquakes and the ground moves around and stuff, but that’s sort of normal. And so when a volcano is quiet, we can’t tell when it might erupt, because it’s not rumbling. Once a volcano starts to rumble, that’s when we can start really forecasting. So it’s when you see changes, that’s when we can start to forecast things. So there’s no changes at Yellowstone so there’s absolutely no sign that it’s going to erupt anytime soon.

KACYN:  Yeah, because at school, I was really confused because a lot of my friends were like, the volcano is gonna erupt soon. And some of my teachers are like, no, it’ll happen in like, 10 billion years. Yeah, I don’t know.

MIKE:  Yellowstone really can’t be overdue, because it just doesn’t work that way. I mean, it’s not like a library book or something where it can only go on a certain time. So Yellowstone is gonna do what it wants. But from studying it, we know that the magma chamber beneath the ground is actually mostly solid. It’s hot. But it’s just hot rock, it’s not molten. So there’s really no sign of Yellowstone showing any indications it’s going to do anything anytime soon. And if anyone tells you like, “well, yeah, but it’s overdue.” You can say, “well, you have no idea what you’re talking about. That’s not how volcanoes work.”

KACYN:  And then another question is, how big was the last eruption? Like, could it be as big as the eruption that might happen sooner, in like a billion years or like smaller, bigger? 

MIKE:  Well, the last eruption was a lava flow. And it happened on sort of the southwest part of the park. If you ever have a chance to go back into the park and go hiking or whatnot, then you go to the Pitchstone plateau. And the Pitchstone plateau is the last lava flow to come out of Yellowstone. That was 70,000 years ago, that was the last time it erupted. So if it’s a lava flow eruption the next time, you know, it would probably be a pretty big tourist attraction. Because people would want to come and see this lava flow coming out of the ground, it wouldn’t necessarily have the big explosion. Now, if it’s a big explosion, then of course, it’s really a lot different, but it would take a long time for the volcano to get ready for that kind of big event. It would really have to build in order to have a big explosion.

KACYN:  Why do they call it the Yellowstone Caldera?

MIKE:  So the caldera refers to like a really, really, big crater. When you say caldera, it generally means it’s a huge crater and it’s something that collapsed. So it kind of fell into itself. Like, you know, if you were building a sandcastle, and you sort of dug under the castle and it fell into the hole you made. Yeah, that would be a collapse. And so a really big collapse is a caldera.

JACKSON OLSON:  Hi, my name is Jackson and I’m 11 years old. I live in Burlington, Wyoming and go to Burlington Elementary School. I am interested in learning about natural disasters such as tornadoes and storms. I got into this subject after looking at pictures of storms. I wonder how they can happen and how can I prepare? I’ve also seen really bad wind storms and even a tornado near our area. Today, I am interviewing Tim Troutman, The Warning Coordination Meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Riverton, Wyoming. 

I know there’s tornado alley in the middle of the US and I have heard that there’s a small part of Wyoming in Tornado Alley, but I am not sure. So I was wondering if there is parts of Wyoming in Tornado Alley?

Tornado northeast of Guernsey, WY.
Credit: Dan Fitts

TIM TROUTMAN: The area from about Johnson County, you know, just south of Buffalo down into Natrona County, that is a more severe weather active area. And that area also extends down through the valley there in Natrona County, down to the southwest into Sweetwater County. Well, this area through here. If you could characterize an area this is probably the far far western fringe of the Great Plains tornado outbreak area if there is going to be one. A lot of these areas are in valley regions. And you know the winds when they come down off the mountain here, you get the what we call down sloping and the winds are rushing down to the ground. Well as they’re doing that, winds are coming in from the southeast. So when that happens, you get the downslope wind and combining with the winds rushing in from the southeast, it creates a counterclockwise motion or spinning motion within the thunderstorms every once in a while. And that may be why we’re getting some of these tornado occurrences in the valley areas. Since 1950, there have been 171 tornadoes that have occurred across our forecast area. The only violent tornado that occurred, that has been reported in Wyoming, occurred on July 21 1987, there in Teton county there toward the south end of Yellowstone and into the northern section of the Grand Teton mountains. So tornadoes can in fact develop in mountain areas and they can rise up and come back down a mountain.

JACKSON:  I was wondering, was a EF-5 tornado ever recorded in Wyoming?

TIM:  No fortunately, there’s never been an EF-5 tornado, that would be a tornado that has wind speeds at or exceeding 200 miles an hour. There has been one, one EF-4 tornado though, that was the violent tornado that moved through the northeastern section of the Tetons. That tornado was on the ground for numerous miles and it destroyed you know thousands and thousands of trees, maybe into the low millions. 

JACKSON: Can blizzards happen in Wyoming?

TIM: Blizzards do happen in Wyoming every once in a while, probably about, you know about once every other year or so we get what would be called a blizzard. You have to have wind speeds that are three hours or more continuous. You have to have 35 mile an hour winds or greater. So you know it can definitely produce some, some structural damage that could be similar to, you know, strong winds like with a tropical storm. The main threats with blizzards are going to be heavily drifting snow due to the wind blowing the snow around. And you know, temperatures typically can drop significantly in a blizzard and you get, you know, very significant snow with a blizzard also. Visibility is really limited because of the blowing snow. So that’s why it’s important to know the weather forecast out there before you venture out during a developing blizzard.

JACKSON: Can a blizzard happen during a tornado in Wyoming?

TIM:  No, that really shouldn’t ever happen just because of the fact you have to have warm air to create a thunderstorm. And with a blizzard occurring, you’re going to have, you know, temperatures below freezing, typically in that sense. So when the temperature is below 32 degrees, it’s going to be hard in most cases to really develop a thunderstorm that could become severe enough to produce a tornado. So typically, you know, during the warmest time of the year, you know, between late May through the first part of September, that’s the time period where we typically can receive the potential for tornadoes in central western Wyoming. That said it is really a summertime experience in that sense and it’s unfortunate we have to have them, but the important thing is to be ready and be prepared and know where to go when a tornado strikes. Where do you think’s a good place to go when a tornado strikes?

JACKSON: I normally think of somewhere underground like bunkers and stuff like that,because the debris won’t be able to reach you. So I was wondering would you use a bunker if a tornado strikes?

TIM: Where is a good place in your home if a tornado strikes, that can be underground?

JACKSON: If the tornado reaches you in the basement wouldn’t you hide under something right?

This photo shows some of the destruction caused by a tornado that hit Cheyenne in 1979. The tornado caused $25 million in damages and remains the most destructive and costliest storm in Wyoming history. Wyoming State Archives/AP

TIM:  That’s correct. Yeah. But basements are a good place to be because, you know, unless it’s a walkout basement, you’re going to be likely below ground level. And that’s, you know, especially if it’s a strong, violent tornado that’s approaching. You know, the best way to be out and away from those tornadoes is to get underground and get out of the way of them.

KACYN:  So Jackson, what’s the coolest thing you learned about tornadoes? 

JACKSON:  The coolest thing I learned about tornados is how they formed from funnel clouds coming down from the sky and how lightning bolts can interact with them. So Kacyn, what is the coolest thing you learned about the Yellowstone Volcano?

KACYN:  The coolest thing that I’ve learned about the Yellowstone Volcano is that it’s not the type of volcano where just smoke comes out. It’s a lava flow volcano, so when it does erupt, it’s a lava flow volcano because I thought it would just be like a big smoke cloud. Poof.

What surprised you the most in your interview?

What surprised me the most is that there was once an EF-4 tornado in our state. Luckily it didn’t kill anybody. Except it’s surprising that a tornado that strong can happen in our state. What surprised you the most in your interview?

KACYN:  What surprised me the most is that like I was saying before, I didn’t know that there are two types of volcanoes.

JACKSON:  So Kacyn, did anything you heard in the interview inspire you to explore more about this topic?

KACYN: Yeah, I think that volcanoes are really cool. And I really want to learn more about them. Do you feel more prepared now that you know more about tornadoes?

JACKSON:  Yes, I know the strategy to not get hurt by a tornado. You can get in your basement or crawl space and you will most of the time be safe from the tornado. Do you feel safer now that you know more about the Yellowstone Volcano? I’ve heard it’s going to come in like 66 million years so I wouldn’t be worried. That is about as likely as the asteroids from the dinosaurs.

KACYN:  I feel safer because I feel like there’s nothing to worry about. Because Mike Poland told me that the Yellowstone Volcano will not errupt anytime soon, at least in my lifetime. So I don’t have to be worried about anything. 

That’s why we asked why. That’s why we ask why.