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IT Came from Beneath

Posted by TestOut Staff on

Probably almost everyone who has ever been to Yellowstone National Park in (mostly) Wyoming knows about the Old Faithful Geyser. Millions of visitors have stood and waited for one of its frequent eruptions to spew boiling water more than 100 feet into the air. Old Faithful blows its stack at regular intervals of between 44 minutes and 2 hours, and has done so for decades. The carefully managed area around the geyser's mouth might be the most visited spot in the entire park.

Old Faithful Geyser

Old Faithful has a somewhat less-well known cousin, however, that is similarly reliable, but hasn't gone off since long before humans inhabited North America. The Yellowstone Caldera, sometimes called the Yellowstone Supervolcano, is a geologic feature within the park roughly 34 miles by 45 miles formed by volcanic activity both at the surface and far below the placid forests. The agent of change is a massive subterranean "hotspot," or magmatic chamber, poking up into the planetary crust.

Every once in a geologic while, magma from the hotspot forces its was to the surface in a gigantic eruption with catastrophic explosive power. The Yellowstone Caldera doesn't erupt as frequently as Old Faithful, and thank heavens for that. The biggest eruption, among the largest known to man, occurred 2.1 million years ago and covered a 5,790-square mile region in volcanic ash. Two comparably major eruptions have occurred since: 1.3 million years ago, and 640,000 years ago.

That's not as lengthy a "pattern" as what's been demonstrated by Old Faithful. On the other hand, with comparable intervals between supereruptions — 800,000 years and 660,000 years — and with the most recent supereruption having occurred 640,000 years ago, and with the surface of the caldera have risen almost 11 inches between 2004 and 2010 (it has since subsided), well, it's probably not a matter of backing up and waiting for the fireworks, but there is a clear and somewhat present danger.

Today, the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory closely monitors seismic and geothermal activity in and around the Yellowstone Caldera. Among other tools employed to keep watch on Yellowstone's sleeping giant are 26 seismic stations, 16 GPS receivers, and 11 stream gauging stations. It's the kind of coordinated, cooperative effort that is much more manageable in the age of information technology. IT makes it dramatically simpler to both harvest and analyze the relevant data.

We often think of IT jobs in the restrictive and reductive sense of sitting at a computer and using a keyboard and mouse to write programs, or build apps, or manage networks. With computers and the internet heavily involved in just about every industry there is, however, working in IT doesn't have to mean sitting in a cubicle on the fourth floor of a business tower downtown. As you build up your repertoire of tech skills, don't get tunnel vision. IT can take you anywhere!


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