Mountain Town News: How to keep Yellowstone’s supervolcano from blasting |

Mountain Town News: How to keep Yellowstone’s supervolcano from blasting

Allen Best
Mountain Town News

JACKSON, Wyo. – You think the smoke this summer was annoying? Just wait until the enormous magma chamber underlying Yellowstone National Park blows again. Scientists calculate it does so every 600,000 to 800,000 years. It last erupted 640,000 years ago.

Depending upon which source you consult, the magnitude of such an eruption would be somewhere between 2,000 and 6,000 times more powerful that of Mount St. Helens in 1980.

Everything within 60 miles would be incinerated, and Wyoming and other states could be blanketed under 3 feet of ash.

Dust and gases from the eruption would blot out enough sunlight to wipe out crops and plunge the world into a “volcanic winter” that could last for a decade or more. The famine could kill untold millions, says NBC News.

There are about 20 such potential supervolcanoes around the global. The last such eruptions occurred 74,000 years ago. The Krakatoa eruption of 1883, which caused temperatures in North America to decline 1.2 degrees C (2.2 degrees F), was a much less powerful eruption.

Now comes a NASA study of how the heat from that magma could be vented and made into something useful. Brian Wilcox, a fellow at the California Institute of Technology Jet Propulsion Laboratory, described how 160 deep wells could be drilled from just outside the park’s perimeter, slanting directionally, to tap the heat of the magma chamber. The heat begins at about 4 miles underground. The heat is manifested at the surface at Old Faithful and other geysers as well at Yellowstone’s many steaming, boiling hot springs.

Water could be used to convey the heat, circulating at a rate of about 450 cubic feet per second, which is comparable to the flow of a modest-sized mountain river in late summer.

Wilcox told the Jackson Hole News&Guide that the heat produced could be translated into 10 gigawatts of electricity. That’s 10 times the electricity produced by Wyoming’s Jim Bridger Power Plant, one of the largest coal-fired power plants in the West.

This venting must continue for thousands of years to avert the danger of eruption. Of course, given humanity’s voracious hunger for energy, maybe this could helps avert the risk of global warming because of greenhouse gas emissions.

No plans to implement the idea are afoot. For the record, scientists calculate that the chance of the Yellowstone supervolcano blowing in any given lifetime is one-tenth of 1 percent. Still, that’s higher odds that an asteroid smacking the Earth.

Massive wildfires galvanize Whistler to plan mass exodus

WHISTLER, B.C. – Whistler and the nearby community of Squamish are gearing up to test a multi-modal evacuation plan. The planning has been motivated by the mass exodus from Florida as Hurricane Irma approached and major wildfires in Canada the last two years that forced people to flee, Squamish is located about 40 minutes west of Whistler, where a finger of the Pacific Ocean meets tall mountains along Howe Sound. The two communities are located along the Sea to Sky Corridor with Vancouver, about two hours away.

“If something happened where both communities had to evacuate simultaneously, we obviously need a plan,” explained Whistler Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden.

Emergency coordinators tell Pique newsmagazine that they intend to study the capacity of forest roads, rail, air and ferries.

Looming large in Whistler’s preparations have been the massive wildfires of the last two years, including one this year at Williams Lake, in the interior of British Columbia, and in 2016 at Fort McMurray, the center for tar sands in northern Alberta.

Mama bear gets a bit crabby on pedestrian mall in Aspen

ASPEN, Colo. – Canmore, at the entrance to Banff National Park, has ordered that crabapples be removed from all trees, because they attract bears. Banff is thinking about a similar measure.

Can Aspen be next? You’d hope so, based on a report last week in the Aspen Daily News. A bear with two cubs had climbed up a crabapple tree on the Hyman Avenue mall, in downtown Aspen. People stopped to gawk — lots of people, young and old, tourists and locals, male and female.

So far, no harm. But then the sow climbed down to get a drink from the stream that flows through the mall.

Instagram opportunity! Police say one woman, holding a child, approached within 3-to-5 feet of the bear, then turned her back to get a selfie. That was a little too close for the sow, who ran to an alley — apparently detached from her cubs. Not surprisingly, the cub-less bear stood on her hind legs.

“It was probably one of the worst situations I’ve had with a bear,” said the police officer, Sgt. Rob Fabrocini. He reported 50 to 60 people milling about over the course of several hours.

People are “putting themselves in danger and others in danger,” Fabrocini told the Daily News. “If a bear grabs a hold of someone, it puts us in a very bad situation. We’re just asking for common sense and to (take photos) from a distance.”

But even if the crabapple trees were removed, Aspen is likely to have continued problems with bears. Citing city records, The Aspen Times reports that bears broke into homes within Aspen’s city limits 23 times during August. Wildlife officials warn those who live on the first floor units to keep their windows closed.

As of mid-September nine bears had been euthanized and others had been relocated. Aspen’s usual problems with bears were exacerbated this year by an acorn crop that got frozen and a thin crop of berries.

Bet you a buck that they both won’t stay in business

WESTCLIFFE, Colo. – In Colorado’s spectacularly beautiful Wet Mountain Valley, an odd business competition is lining up. The valley has two small towns, Westcliffe and Silver Cliff, located cheek to jowl. You leave one town, you enter the other.

Between the two is just one of the stores that are the 21st equivalent of the old five-and-dimes. It’s a Family Dollar store, and it’s located in Westcliffe. Now comes a proposal by Dollar General to build a store next door, but across the town boundary, in Silver Cliff.

In reporting this, the Wet Mountain Tribune notes that the two went head-to-head in similar fashion in the Colorado town of Florence. There, Dollar General won the battle, and the Family Dollar building became a hardware store. That’s hard to figure, given that Family Dollar really does sell all its stuff for a buck. Dollar General, not so much.

How do you communicate risks of mountain climbs?

ASPEN, Colo. – After the death of six people on the big mountains of the Elk Range between Aspen and Crested Butte, Pitkin County officials and federal land managers continue to puzzle over what can be done to alert mountain climbers to the potential dangers.

“We want to get some real frank talk out there about what it’s like to climb these peaks and what they can expect,” said Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo. “These are not hikes. These are climbs.”

Five of the six deaths occurred on Capitol Peak and the sixth on the Maroon Bells. Both can be climbed without protection, such as ropes and pitons. But both also offer abundant opportunities to get into trouble.

While there are signs at trailheads, The Aspen Times says officials suspect few people read them. One idea is to install a stand-alone sign — perhaps farther along the trail — outlining the deadly possibilities on the peaks.

Signs can have unintended consequences. For example, a sign describing the safest routes may create a false sense of security.

As San Francisco sizzles, pika in Sierra Nevada disappear

LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – Mark Twain is supposed to have said that the coldest winter he ever spent was in San Francisco. Actually, he probably said something like that about Paris, but not San Francisco.

No matter. San Francisco has been hot lately, 106 degrees on Sept. 1, the highest temperature in almost 150 years of recordings.

To the east in the Sierra Nevada, it’s also been hot. But a new study published in August suggested the rising warmth may have already driven out a cold-loving critter, the hamster-size pika.

A six-year study in a 165-square-mile area of the Sierra Nevada near Lake Tahoe found no recent evidence of pikas. The research team led by biologist Joseph Stewart had begun monitoring the area when the pika was petitioned for listing under the California and federal endangered species acts.

“When we found old pika poop in every talus field that we looked at along the Truckee River, which is super low elevation, we started scratching our heads. If there is old pika poop here, where did the pikas go? Are they at higher elevations?” Stewart told the Tahoe Daily Tribune. “The next six years we surveyed at progressively higher and higher elevations until we realized that, oh my god, pikas are extinct (extirpated) from this whole huge area.”

Pikas are adapted to surviving in cold, snowy winters. Pikas don’t hibernate. Their thick coats of fur and a high metabolic rate that acts as a furnace allow their survival in cold weather.

Those adaptations, so useful for surviving cold, make them vulnerable to overheating.

“There are thermal physiological studies that show their upper critical limit is only 3 degrees C above their resting body temperature,” Stewart explained. “So, they are very well adapted to surviving under the snow in the wintertime.”

Stewart believes the pikas in the study area may have died of hyperthermia from foraging in conditions that were too hot. Or, possibly, they did not collect enough food due to the warmer temperatures and ended up starving or not reproducing.

While pikas disappear from the mountains above Lake Tahoe, scientists continue to ponder how much wildfire risk is increased by rising temperatures.

This year’s weather will eventually become the norm, Michael Anderson, the California state climatologist, told the Sacramento Bee.

“We’ve had hot summers in the past, but as the world warms you spend more time above certain (temperature) thresholds,” Anderson said.

“There’s no one event that’s going to be a flashing sign saying, ‘Climate change did this.’ It’s just the background upon which these events start playing out. We’re in a warmer world than we were back in, say, 1991.”

County creates department for sustainable communities

EAGLE, Colo. – Eagle County has created a Sustainable Communities Department, charged with focusing on climate action, environmental sustainability and forest health.

High on the priority list will be increased energy efficiency and waste diversion. The new department will also assist other sustainability and resiliency initiatives, according to a press release issued by the county. The county’s largest town is Vail.

The effort will work first to reduce energy and fuel costs within county operations. The county estimates that greenhouse gas emissions due to county operations have been reduced 60 percent since 2012 because of additional solar energy installations at the airport and elsewhere. Improved energy efficiency has also reduced emissions as acquired vehicles have become more fuel efficient and LED lights have replaced other lights that required more energy.

The county seeks to reduce the county government’s carbon footprint by another 50 percent by 2030. The broader climate action plan for the area, known to some as the Vail Valley, calls for a 25 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2025.

Adam Palmer, the county’s environmental policy planner, will direct the new department. No new staff is being added.

Avon joins Colorado’s new community climate compact

AVON, Colo. – Add Avon to the list of Colorado towns, cities and counties that have hooked elbows in the new Compact of Colorado Communities.

The organization was hatched in May at a meeting convened by Aspen city officials with the goal of making local efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and in that way limit impacts of climate change.

The Association of Climate Change Officers is assisting the local jurisdictions with the goal of building local capacity in critical decision-making roles to rapidly scale up and advance climate action planning at the local level.

As of mid-September, nine jurisdictions have joined, most of them from ski towns. But formal action is expected by several dozen other city, town and county governments in the next few weeks.

For more information, visit

Another coal-seam fire or just more coal lying about?

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. – A wildfire northwest of Steamboat Springs in August revealed the unsettling possibility that a wildfire had ignited a coal seam.

The fire was in an area of an old coal mine, so there was also the possibility that the coal shown burning by a drone was only left-over coal from an old mine, noted Steamboat Today.

Colorado has several long-burning underground coal seams afire. One in Glenwood Springs is believed to have caused above-ground vegetation to catch fire in Glenwood Springs in 2002, creating a conflagration that for a time looked like it just might burn up a large portion of that city. It did consume several houses, but it could have been much worse.

Wrong turn for real estate dream or is it a dead end?

PAGOSA SPRINGS, Colo. – Has the Village at Wolf Creek finally ended in a cul de sac with no place to go in this vision for 1,300 housing units high in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado?

Maybe not — this despite a federal court ruling that the U.S. Forest Service illegally approved a land exchange in violation of federal environmental laws. But that ruling can still be appealed to a higher court.

U.S. District Court Judge Richard Matsch ruled again last week that the U.S. Forest Service overstepped its bounds — and violated federal laws — when approving a land exchange crucial for the massive real estate project at the foot of the ski area of the same name. The project as now envisioned would consist of up to 1,300 housing units, but it needs federal land at the base of the ski area to happen. That requires a land exchange.

Matsch had made the same ruling earlier and refused to rescind it. He said the Forest Service approval was a “patent effort to circumvent obligations to protect the natural environment” as specified by the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970 and the Endangered Species Act of 1973. He called the Forest Service decision “an attempt at an artful dodge of its responsibility.”

The judge’s order “mirrors what we’ve been saying the whole time,” says Matt Sandler, an attorney for Rocky Mountain Wild, an organization that has been fighting the land exchange for about 20 years.

A core element was insufficiency of measures to protect Canada lynx that travel along the spine of the Rocky Mountains, where the real estate project would be located.

One of Colorado’s oldest ski areas, Wolf Creek is unlike nearly all others in that there is no lodging whatsoever at the ski area. Enter B.J. “Red” McCombs, who rose from a hardscrabble Texas farm to join the ranks of the 400 wealthiest Americans, as per the calculations of Forbes. He did so mostly by selling cars, although he also owned a number of professional sports franchises, including the Denver Nuggets for a while, and had other interests.

In the 1980s, McCombs got approval for a relatively small land swap at the base of the ski area, but did nothing with the approval. Then, at some point, he came back in for a much larger plan — requiring another land exchange.

McComb’s plan for 1,300 units could yield a theoretical population of 10,000 people in a place where nobody lives. The closest towns are South Fork, 10 miles to the east, and Pagosa Springs, 24 miles to the west. The 10,856-foot pass is known for its heavy, deep snows, often among the deepest of any ski area in Colorado.

The ski area itself has a base elevation of 10,300 feet. That’s about 700 feet higher than that of Breckenridge, or a little lower than the top elevation of Steamboat.

The next step for McCombs, who is now 89, or the Forest Service would be to appeal the district court judge’s decision to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. The case could conceivably end up before the U.S. Supreme Court. “The process will take years,” says Rocky Mountain Wild’s Sandler.

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