‘Plates grinding!’ How ‘major earthquake’ at Yellowstone put USGS scientists on alert

The Yellowstone volcano is dubbed a supervolcano due to its capability to inflict global devastation during a supereruption, something that has happened three times in the past – 2.1 million years ago, 1.3 million years ago and 640,000 years ago. Located below the states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, the area is constantly monitored by the USGS (United States Geological Survey) for signs that a supereruption is on its way. While most of these incidents are nowhere near the levels needed to trigger an eruption, the 1959 Hebgen Lake earthquake that occurred on August 17, 1959, left some nervous.

The 7.3 magnitude quake caused massive damage, including 28 fatalities and a considerable £9million (£200,000,000 today) in repairs to highways and timbers and put USGS workers in the area on alert.

Martin Stryker was 15 when it struck, while he was camping with his father, stepmother and two brothers.

He detailed his horror to Earth Magazine in 2009, stating: “At first, I thought it was a thunderstorm.

“When you’re in something of that magnitude, you can almost hear the plates grinding together.”

Turning towards the tent where his father and stepmother were sleeping, Mr Stryker tragically saw something that made his blood run cold. 

A boulder almost two metres high had fallen where they were sleeping.

Mr Stryker detailed: “I didn’t immediately alert my brothers.

“I went to see if there was anything I could do, and there wasn’t.

“I told them that Dad and Ethyl have been killed, there’s a major earthquake going on, and we need to get out of here.”

READ MORE: ‘Get out of here!’ How huge Yellowstone earthquake sparked panic and devastation

After only three weeks the damned river created a lake more than 170 feet deep.

The lake the quake created now covers an area five miles long and a third of a mile wide.

Jack Epstein, a geologist emeritus with the USGS was working as a field assistant in Montana when the earthquake hit. 

As fate would have it, his team’s campsite was essentially at the epicentre, on a hill overlooking Hebgen Lake. 

His mapping project was temporarily put on hold, and Mr Epstein spent the next several weeks escorting various teams of geologists around the area. 

In spite of the human toll, Earth processes were on display in an unprecedented way, and the team had to take advantage of it.

He said: “It was a marvellous opportunity for a beginning geologist.”

Today, tourists to the area can stop by the Earthquake Lake Visitor Centre, which is situated 27 miles north of West Yellowstone to relive the horrors from more than half a century ago.


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