Death Valley’s Big Bang Theory

From the The Earth Institute at Columbia University

Waiting for Death Valley’s Big Bang

A volcanic explosion crater may have future potential

Death Valley's half-mile-wide Ubehebe Crater turns out to have been created 800 years ago -- far more recently than generally thought. Credit: Brent Goehring/Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

In California’s Death Valley, death is looking just a bit closer. Geologists have determined that the half-mile-wide Ubehebe Crater, formed by a prehistoric volcanic explosion, was created far more recently than previously thought—and that conditions for a sequel may exist today.

Up to now, geologists were vague on the age of the 600-foot deep crater, which formed when a rising plume of magma hit a pocket of underground water, creating an explosion. The most common estimate was about 6,000 years, based partly on Native American artifacts found under debris. Now, a team based at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory has used isotopes in rocks blown out of the crater to show that it formed just 800 years ago, around the year 1200.

That geologic youth means it probably still has some vigor; moreover, the scientists think there is still enough groundwater and magma around for another eventual reaction. The study appears in the current issue of the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

Ubehebe (YOU-bee-HEE-bee) is the largest of a dozen such craters, or maars, clustered over about 3 square kilometers of Death Valley National Park. The violent mixing of magma and water, resulting in a so-called phreatomagmatic explosion, blew a hole in the overlying sedimentary rock, sending out superheated steam, volcanic ash and deadly gases such as sulfur dioxide. Study coauthor Brent Goehring, (now at Purdue University) says this would have created an atom-bomb-like mushroom cloud that collapsed on itself in a donut shape, then rushed outward along the ground at some 200 miles an hour, while rocks hailed down. Any creature within two miles or more would be fatally thrown, suffocated, burned and bombarded, though not necessarily in that order. “It would be fun to witness—but I’d want to be 10 miles away,” said Goehring of the explosion.

The team began its work after Goehring and Lamont-Doherty professor Nicholas Christie-Blick led students on a field trip to Death Valley. Noting that Ubehebe remained poorly studied, they got permission from the park to gather some 3- to 6-inch fragments of sandstone and quartzite, part of the sedimentary conglomerate rock that the explosion had torn out. In the lab, Goehring and Lamont-Doherty geochemist Joerg Schaefer applied recent advances in the analysis of beryllium isotopes, which change their weight when exposed to cosmic rays. The isotopes change at a predictable rate when exposed to the rays, so they could pinpoint when the stones were unearthed. An intern at Lamont-Doherty, Columbia College undergraduate Peri Sasnett, took a leading role in the analysis, and ended up as first author on the paper.

IMAGE: Geochemists dated the crater by analyzing rocks thrown out when it exploded. Lead author Peri Sasnett contemplates a sample.

Click here for more information.


The dates clustered from 2,100 to 800 years ago; the scientists interpreted this as signaling a series of smaller explosions, culminating in the big one that created the main crater around 1200. A few other dates went back 3,000 to 5,000 years; these are thought to have come from earlier explosions at smaller nearby maars. Christie-Blick said the dates make it likely that magma is still lurking somewhere below. He pointed out that recent geophysical studies by other researchers have spotted what look like magma bodies under other parts of Death Valley. “Additional small bodies may exist in the region, even if they are sufficiently small not to show up geophysically,” he said. He added that the dates give a rough idea of eruption frequency: about every thousand years or less, which puts the current day within the realm of possibility. “There is no basis for thinking that Ubehebe is done,” he said.

Hydrological data points the same way. Phreatomagmatic explosions are thought to take place mainly in wet places, which would seem to exclude Death Valley–the hottest, driest place on the continent. Yet, as the researchers point out, Lamont-Doherty tree-ring researchers have already shown that the region was even hotter and drier during Medieval times, when the blowup took place. If there was sufficient water then, there is certainly enough now, they say. Observations of springs and modeling of groundwater levels suggests the modern water table starts about 500 feet below the crater floor. The researchers’ calculations suggest that it would take a spherical magma chamber as small as 300 feet across and an even smaller pocket of water to produce a Ubehebe-size incident.

Park officials are taking the study in stride. “We’ve typically viewed Ubehebe as a static feature, but of course we’re aware it could come back,” said geologist Stephanie Kyriazis, a park education specialist. “This certainly adds another dimension to what we tell the public.” (About a million people visit the park each year.) The scientists note that any reactivation of the crater would almost certainly be presaged by warning signs such as shallow earthquakes and opening of steam vents; this could go on for years before anything bigger happened.

For perspective, Yellowstone National Park, further east, is loaded with explosion craters made by related processes, plus the world’s largest concentration of volcanically driven hot springs, geysers and fumaroles. The U.S. Geological Survey expects an explosion big enough to create a 300-foot-wide crater in Yellowstone about every 200 years; there have already been at least 20 smaller blowouts in the past 130 years. Visitors sometimes are boiled alive in springs, but no one has yet been blown up. Death Valley’s own fatal dangers are mainly non-geological: single-vehicle car accidents, heat exhaustion and flash floods. Rock falls, rattlesnakes and scorpions provide extra hazards, said Kyriazis. The crater is not currently on the list. “Right now, we’re not planning to issue an orange alert or anything like that,” she said.

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The paper, “Do Phreatomagmatic Eruptions at Ubehebe Crater (Death Valley California) Relate to a Wetter Than Present Hydro-Climate?” is available from the authors, or The Earth Institute.

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47 Responses to Death Valley’s Big Bang Theory

  1. Gary says:

    A Ubehebe heebeegeebee, this report is.

  2. Bill Jamison says:

    The new dates put the explosion in line with the Inyo-Mono Craters up near Mammoth Mtn. Apparently that entire area was very active less than 1,000 years ago.

  3. Death Valley Sarah says:

    God, I do so love my own backyard!

  4. Rob Dawg says:

    You mean the science wasn’t settled?

  5. cui bono says:

    Fascinating. It reminded me of something:

    “Visitors sometimes are boiled alive in springs…”. Is this from the Yellowstone Park tourist board brochure? :-)

  6. Ed Mertin says:

    http://m.wired.com/wiredscience/2012/01/ubehebe-crater-possibly-younger-but-no-imminent-danger-of-an-eruption/

    There are a couple of problems with the way this news is being reported:

    The implication is that conditions are ripe for a new explosive eruption in Death Valley. However, they leave out one important piece: magma. Sure, if groundwater drives explosivity, then Death Valley can still produce explosive eruptions of basalt and basaltic andesite. However, there are no signs that any new magma is anywhere near Ubehebe right now, making a “new eruption” a little trickier.

    The ages in the article are Beryllium-10 exposure ages – notoriously tricky beasts. It relies on the idea that a rock is exposed to the surface of the Earth and then sees cosmic rays bombard its surface, causing Beryllium-10 (an isotope of Be) to build up on the exposed surface. Now, this assumes a constant rate of bombardment, so the rock is exposed the entire interval, which, as you can imagine, might be a big assumption.

    In the research article itself, the authors say “Twelve of the fifteen ages obtained lie between 0.8 and 2.1 ka, while three samples give older, mid-Holocene ages. The cluster between 0.8 and 2.1 ka is interpreted as encompassing the interval of volcanic activity during which Ubehebe Crater was formed. The remaining older ages are inferred to date eruptions at the older neighboring craters.” This suggests to me that some deposits could be as young as 800 years old, but not necessarily the main event. It is shows that they interpreted older ages as not part of Ubehebe – an interpretation that would require petrologic or geochemical analysis to show conclusively that the older ages are not part of Ubehebe.

    This is not to say that Ubehebe might not be younger than previously thought. Volcanic features in desert environments are difficult to date because so little weathering occurs – an eruption thousands of years old might look like it happened last year. However, it is always exciting to see new techniques applied to geologic questions. Now we just need to follow up with other techniques and studies to support these new ages for Ubehebe Crater.

  7. Latitude says:

    so somewhere between 800 and 5000 years ago…is their best guess

    I know this isn’t funny….but I can’t stop laughing..
    “Visitors sometimes are boiled alive in springs…”
    Is that on a regular schedule for the tourists?

  8. Bill Parsons says:

    Phreatomagmatic explosions are thought to take place mainly in wet places, which would seem to exclude Death Valley–the hottest, driest place on the continent. Yet, as the researchers point out, Lamont-Doherty tree-ring researchers have already shown that the region was even hotter and drier during Medieval times, when the blowup took place. If there was sufficient water then, there is certainly enough now, they say.

    Clearly those “creationists” from Columbia University have not received the enlightened left-coast schooling needed to understand their subject. Perhaps the National Center for Science Education in Oakland could fill them in on the science. Every school child now knows that it was colder during the Medieval Warm Period. That’s why we enlightened and well-funded beings now calls it the “putative warm period” p-u-t-a-t-i-v-e.”

    http://wattsupwiththat.com/2012/01/19/comparing-climate-skepticism-to-creationism-in-the-classroom/

    Forgive them, Master Gleick, they know not what they do.

  9. KnR says:

    have we heard from ‘the Team ‘ has to how their models predicted this and its further evidenced of AGW doom?

  10. Hoser says:

    Ubehebe crater is a lot of fun – going down. It’s a good thing they picked some young people to do the work.

    When I was 15, my friend and I ran down the slope, every stride leaping many feet into the air above the deep gravel-like rock. Yep, not a care in the world. Indeed, the crater was several hundred feet deep. We had many minutes of fun leaping and hollering. There wasn’t much at the bottom.

    And then we had to climb up. All that gravel was easily pushed downslope at every step, meaning many steps were needed to climb the distance one step normally produced. There was no choice. If I wanted to live, I had to keep going, step after step, no matter now long it took. And it did take a long time.

    Now, when I think back, it’s a perfect analogy to getting out of debt. It sure is fun going down hill.

  11. R. Gates says:

    Or, nothing could happen at this site for 10 000 years or more.

  12. Jean Parisot says:

    I was there many years ago, had no idea about the geology.

  13. dcardno says:

    Yet, as the researchers point out, Lamont-Doherty tree-ring researchers have already shown that the region was even hotter and drier during Medieval times, when the blowup took place…

    I thought it was pretty firmly established that Medieval times are just like now (or perhaps slightly cooler), and that any hotter or drier conditions were localized to Northern Europe. Obviously, the study has major flaws. /sarc

  14. This dating puts it at the time of the beginning of the LIA and squares with the Bryant impact near New Zealand. Good to see scientific catch up though most are still behind the 8 ball since the plasma connection hasn’t been factored. The craters are most likely electric discharge craters of external causation. Plate Tectonists can’t cope with this approach however, so righteous indignation is expected in the comments.

  15. kuhnkat says:

    ““Visitors sometimes are boiled alive in springs…”.”

    Voluntarily or part of a forced ceremony. I would hope it isn’t a cooking show.

  16. DJ says:

    This would be consistent, time wise geologically, with the volcanic island in Mono Lake.

    If you happen to be in the neighborhood, take a guided kayak tour with Stewart, who happens to be a geologist working for the USGS…on the caldera project, and he can tell you all about the local volcanic activity.
    http://www.calderakayak.com/

    Then swing by the Whoa Nellie Deli for some awesome food at the Mobile station.
    http://www.whoanelliedeli.com/
    (Please mods, this shameless plug is not compensated, I just like sharing good stuff)

  17. Mike Maxwell says:

    Hoser said, “It sure is fun going down hill.” Fortunately, some of us are over the hill.

  18. Bill Parsons says:

    It’s a crater one-half mile in diameter and six hundred feet deep? The size of the blast must have been immense. I wonder if the description of the atomic-bomb sized mushroom cloud could be right? Wouldn’t it more accurate to suggest a hydrogen-bomb-sized blast?

  19. Justthinkin says:

    “Gary says:

    January 24, 2012 at 1:27 pm

    A Ubehebe heebeegeebee, this report is

    Gary…you owe mean a new keyboard/monitor. Funny.When I read the post header,pics of the Grand Canyon jumped into my mind.
    As anybody asked any of the local natives if they have heard of this in their stories??

  20. otsar says:

    This phenomenon must be really spectacular when it happens in an oil/gas reservoir or a coal seam.

  21. Craig Moore says:

    I guess when this thing blows the scientists will learn the difference between the crater in their backsides and the hole in the ground.

  22. TRM says:

    Tis just a bitty baby. Ya want a nice sized one of 6k years vintage (or so) try Crater Lake. Now that’s a volcano!

  23. juanslayton says:

    Justthinkin: As anybody asked any of the local natives if they have heard of this in their stories??

    I wondered about this myself. Check out ‘Timbisha Shoshone.’ They recently gained federal recognition and reservation property as historic residents. They have a web site and offices in Bishop. I have e-mailed asking if there is any oral history that reflects this incident. A few inquiries from other interested persons might be taken seriously….

  24. RockyRoad says:

    R. Gates says:
    January 24, 2012 at 3:33 pm

    Or, nothing could happen at this site for 10 000 years or more.

    That’s exactly my prediction about Global Warming, with one exceptional caveat emptor: The next Ice Age, which is just as certain as death and taxes, and just about as pleasant–coming, as it were, to a neighborhood near you.

    Bank on it.

  25. RockyRoad says:

    Louis Hissink says:
    January 24, 2012 at 4:09 pm

    This dating puts it at the time of the beginning of the LIA and squares with the Bryant impact near New Zealand. Good to see scientific catch up though most are still behind the 8 ball since the plasma connection hasn’t been factored. The craters are most likely electric discharge craters of external causation. Plate Tectonists can’t cope with this approach however, so righteous indignation is expected in the comments.

    There’s always an exception or two out there, but I’m a firm believer that Plate Tectonics offers a plethora of self evidence–my MS in geology was on volcanism and I studied the trace elemental configuration as evidence for differentiation of a shallow mantle/deep crustal source for the magma and the vast majority of volcanoes demonstrate this type of signature.

  26. GeoLurking says:

    FYI, a half mile across and six hundred feet deep sounds big, but that’s only 31,000,780 cubic meters of stuff. Granted, it is a maar, and it did happen all at once (mostly), and that’s just the size of the hole… but Eyjafjallajökull dumped about 140,000,000 cubic meters of tephra in it’s last eruption.

    Larger than a lot of stuff that the US has seen, but not what I would call “stupendous.” (Mt St Helens had 1,200,000,000 cubic meters of teprha in it’s 1980 eruption)

  27. Ric G says:

    very minor observation/correction: Yellowstone is more north than east of Death Valley…. approx. 600 miles north vs approx. 200 miles east….

    now, back to bed….

  28. John Marshall says:

    Fascinating post.

  29. Roy says:

    @ Bill Parsons

    Every school child now knows that it was colder during the Medieval Warm Period. That’s why we enlightened and well-funded beings now calls it the “putative warm period” p-u-t-a-t-i-v-e.”

    I did not realise that the correct terminology is not the “putative warm period.” Thanks for enlightening me. About 13 years ago I visited Greenland and saw some of the Norse ruins there including a church. I now realise that it was just an optical illusion – a putative church built by putative Vikings!

  30. Roy says:

    In my last message I should have written “is now the putative warm period”, and NOT “is not the putative warm period.”

  31. Rocky Road,

    And your point is ? Otherwise you posted a non sequitur….?

  32. MikeH says:

    GeoLurking said:
    Eyjafjallajökull,
    Yeah, say that 5 times fast, i dare you…. You’ll hurt yourself…

  33. TanGeng says:

    Year 1200?

    That curiously coincides with the widespread abandonment and migration of peoples and a shift of climate in southwestern United States estimated to have occurred between 1150 and 1400. It’s been a huge mystery and there isn’t a strong story of an eruption in the oral tradition of the tribes. It’d be an interesting if the eruption was the answer.

  34. Tony Hansen says:

    Rocky Road
    “… and the vast majority of volcanoes demonstrate this type of signature’.
    If the hypothesis only covers the… ‘vast majority’… is it missing something?

  35. Crito says:

    arrggh. Tangeng beat me to the disapparance of the Cliff Dwelers tie. If this were the case then there should be geologic evidence of the eruption at the Cliff Dweller sites which would confirm both the erruption date and the plausability of such a tie.

    That being said Detroit is becoming a ghost town without a smidge of volcanic activity. Maybe the Cliff Dwellers created an unsustainable welfare state and its younger population just moved to a place where they could have a life devoid of obliged slavery curtesy of their idiot elders.

  36. D Nash says:

    Well it’s a good thing we are using up all of the ground water. No explosion if all of that pesky water is used up.

  37. treegyn1 says:

    As a relatively soon-to-be resident of Montana, I’m much more concerned about the Yellowstone Caldera, which is overdue…

  38. a reader says:

    I don’t think this is a new finding. From National Geographic January 1970 pp.98-99–

    “Ashes and cinders spewed over northern Death Valley, perhaps as recently as 1,000 years ago, when a mountain blew its top…Little Hebe on its shoulder may have formed even later.”

    The picture accompanying the caption shows the multiple craters not really visible in the article above. The NatGeo article clearly shows the silt and sand carried to the bottom of the craters by rainwater and erosion, and it’s not a great amount. This alone should have told the scientists that the explosion was fairly recent. Interestingly in the NatGeo article it mentions that in 1970 Death Valley had an 18 mile long lake in it formed by a recent 2″ rain which was enough to entirely wash out roads. During the ice age 20,000 years ago, they reckoned the lake to have been 90 miles long. Death Valley is a graben surrounded by mountains.

  39. Jim G says:

    RockyRoad says:
    January 24, 2012 at 9:15 pm
    R. Gates says:
    January 24, 2012 at 3:33 pm

    “Or, nothing could happen at this site for 10 000 years or more.

    That’s exactly my prediction about Global Warming, with one exceptional caveat emptor: The next Ice Age, which is just as certain as death and taxes, and just about as pleasant–coming, as it were, to a neighborhood near you.

    Bank on it.”

    I believe you mean glaciation as we are supposedly presently in an interglacial warming period within an “ice age” . Ice being the “normal” condition of our part of the world. Indeed, you can bank on it. Burn more coal, drive your SUV more, arrange to have your cattle be more flatulent, forget the windmills and solar panels.

  40. GP Hanner says:

    For perspective, the Hale’mau’mau crater, situated in the Kilauea caldera, is active now. Just a few years ago the rim of the crater had an overlook so that you could see down into the crater which, at that time, was completely solid. Then one morning, around 3:00 AM the area under the tourist overlook exploded. It has been erupting ever since. Needless to say, the overlook was destroyed and no one but geologists get very close to Hale’mau’mau these days.

  41. Jimbo says:

    Lamont-Doherty tree-ring researchers have already shown that the region was even hotter and drier during Medieval times, when the blowup took place.

    Surely not! Hailing Michael Mann.

  42. a reader says:

    The name Ubehebe means “basket in the earth” allegedly. If you head a couple hundred miles to the east from Death Valley, you reach the equally interesting area around Flagstaff AZ, with San Francisco Mountain which is a dead ringer for Mt. St. Helens, another stratovolcano which “blew its top.” In the same area are many many cinder cones; one of the neatest of which is Sunset Crater which erupted about 900 years ago. This area is also a seismic area which is migrating eastward. I wonder if the two areas are somehow related?

  43. SteveSadlov says:

    As the East Pacific Rise got subducted, the underlying mantle convection had to go somewhere. I doubt it stopped. It may have simply continued and now resides right underneath the Great Basin.

  44. TomL says:

    Explosions like this one, or Mt. St. Helens, are trivial compared to some of what’s in the in the geologic record. The first big eruption at Yellowstone released about 600 cubic *miles* of tephra, blanketing everything from California to Iowa. That was about 2 million years ago. The latest major eruption was only about 600,000 years ago. And the big caldera collapse eruptions like Yellowstone are trivial compared to flood basalts like Columbia River, which was about 40,000 cubic miles. That’s a whole lot of hot, liquid rock.

  45. GeoLurking says:

    @TomL January 25, 2012 at 1:20 pm

    “…And the big caldera collapse eruptions like Yellowstone are trivial compared to flood basalts like Columbia River, which was about 40,000 cubic miles. That’s a whole lot of hot, liquid rock.”

    Want some fun? Ruminate on this:

    Antipodal Hot Spot Relationships…

    http://www.mantleplumes.org/WebDocuments/Antip_hot.pdf

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