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Plodding the treadmill at the gym today, on the cusp of Congress voting the health insurance bill, I came into the middle of a History Channel feature on the history of volcanoes at Yellowstone National Park. I didn’t have earphones, but read the scrolling text over the beautiful photography and graphic seismic maps. Driving home, reflecting on what I saw and read, I came to what at first may seem an odd conclusion – space travel may become the next great health care challenge.
Not health care insurance, or even the provision of health care itself, but long-term health care for the human race, not to mention the rest of life as we know it. When Einstein said that the greatest challenge to humankind might be extending our compassion across time and space, I thought he was referring to the need for more selflessness. But after watching the history channel piece, I think he may have meant that man’s challenge is to extend our very being across the vastness of time and space, before our ancient earthbound homeland destroys itself, not in battle, but in turning itself inside out once again.
Let’s look at what we know, as reported in the Yellowstone TV special. Visitors are drawn to the park by the hot cauldrons of mineral water bubbling and steaming to the surface, and by the dramatic geysers. What are they? Obviously, they are made of water that is heated deep below and pushed to the surface under variable pressure. Why? Because 10 miles below lies a 25-mile wide pool of liquid rock, molten at 1500 degrees Fahrenheit – twice as hot as a pizza oven. This heats natural water coursing through the thick hard crust, and that’s what we see bubbling up.
Scientists have found evidence of ancient lava on the earth’s surface a hundred miles from the center of Yellowstone, yet where are the remnants of the ancient volcanic mountain from which it burst? Gone. Why is the mountain gone? Because the volcanic blast was so large, so devastating, some 640,000 years ago, that it totally destroyed the mountain, which rained down as lava and dust from a cloud that covered the entire west of the U.S. It was what scientists now call a super volcano. The ancient rim remnants are 45 miles wide. The fields of lava it left behind have evolved into the vast plains of trees and grass that cover the area now.
Also evident in the area are the parallel scratches on surface rock that indicates the previous movement of glacial ice, yet there is no current evidence of mountains high enough to support such glaciers. Why? Previous volcanic activity must have thrust up the land to heights high enough to support the freezing of snow into glaciers, and then those mountains disappeared into volcanic oblivion.
Yellowstone had been riddled by many, many earth tremors since such measurements began a hundred years ago. Why? That molten sea is still active though trapped below miles of hard rock. Scientists, using modern measuring equipment and space observation, have also detected evidence of a series of super volcanoes going back millions of years that have left traces of rims that have moved in a vast V-shape pattern through the area. They have also detected a deeper, active volcanic mass, stretching at least 400 hundred miles beneath the Yellowstone pool, in a rising chimney shape. What could that all mean? Plate tectonics at work. As the earth’s surface has moved above its core through the ages, the chimney has thrust up its magma in different places at the surface, tracing the giant V of super volcano rims.
So, what does the future hold? Obviously, the Yellowstone region, even without any current volcanic mountains, is seismically active. The many small earthquakes indicate that the molten pool and the magma chimney beneath it are restive, even through the thick surface rock. This suggests that pressure is continuing to build, and someday will again burst through the surface in another catastrophic super volcano, perhaps devastating much of America.
This planet Earth we love and which many of us work so hard to conserve, is probably not done with us. Like perhaps millions of species before us, not to mention the many we see in jeopardy to this day, we may face ultimate atomization. In fact, it is almost surely inevitable.
So why space travel? If man is to have any opportunity to extend that compassion Einstein, in his vanity, seemed to have thought we possess, colonizing other planets in this and perhaps other solar systems may be our only feasible destiny.
How much time do we have? Visit Yellowstone and check out Old Faithful. The long-term health of the human race may depend on our collective conclusions. Keep that in mind when legislation and incentives for space travel next come around.

March 2010

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