Michio Kaku and the stale dough

Great Fountain Geyser in the sunset. Photograph by Flicka, Wikimedia Commons.

Flat earthers believe that the earth is flat, but the rest of us have good reasons to think that we know that it is round. The difference is that they trust in their belief in something, and that we trust the scientific process and the data and theories that it yields.

A flat earther stubbornly refuses to acknowledge evidence and state the evidence to be lies, whereas we believe in images from space, satellite telemetry in the form of GPS-signals, and our own eyes as we fly at altitude and watch the earths curvature. We believe in reason, they believe that all is a conspiracy.

I normally say that the more you study science, the less likely you are to become a flat earther.

What boggles my mind is that someone like Michio Kaku, who is steeped in science and have 70 papers and counting to his name, has become a flat earther in regards of volcanoes. After all, I am quite convinced that he is quite skilled at reading papers, so why doesn’t he read up before sprouting flat earth theories about a particular volcano?

So, for the general edification of Michio Kaku I have simplified things in the terminology of baking.


Yellowstone and the stale dough – a brief history

Beating stale dough. Photograph by Samil Korkmaz, Wikimedia Commons.

Yellowstone is a place of stellar beauty, filled with vistas both surprising and serene. As you watch bubbling mud-pots all manner of wildlife will galumph about.

It took quite some time before we understood that the entire place is a remnant and evidence of geological forces on a grand scale.

The first thing we need to discuss is if Yellowstone is a volcano, or a volcanic vent. The question is not as crazy as it may seem, at least if we cast our eyes back into the distant mist of geological time.

Over the last 18 million years a mantle convection or hotspot has created a horse shoe shaped trail of calderas across the Snake River Plains. If we only count the big eruptions, they have only occurred 1 to 3 times at the same location, and then moved on.

So, in a sense of things, Yellowstone is just the latest vent of a much larger volcanic feature that is slowly moving under the continental crust. At the same time Yellowstone itself has the prerequisite intra-crustal magma-reservoir and the repeated eruptions that is a requirement to be counted as a central volcano. This duality is central to what I will write about below.


Misconceptions about volcanoes

Castle Geysir. Photograph by Arad Mojtahedi, Wikimedia Commons.

I do not know if Michio believe in all the misconceptions about volcanoes that I will poke a hole in, but at least some must apply.

Volcanoes receive a steady stream of fresh material. This is fairly uncommon, and those volcanoes that do tend to erupt frequently do that due to the constant pressure that will keep the lid constantly weak (or completely open).

Etna in Sicily, Grimsvötn in Iceland and Fuego in Guatemala are examples of the (almost) constant-feed volcanoes. Problem is just that even these volcanoes tend to go in cycles with waxing and waning frequency of eruptions. Stromboli is perhaps the best example since it has erupted constantly for millennia.

Most volcanoes on the other hand goes through episodic periods of magma arrival. Yellowstone is one of these volcanoes.

If the magma arrives without causing an eruption the magma will start to cool down, and through cracks and water interaction volatiles (gasses and water) will dissipate.

The cooling and loss of volatiles is bad for the power of a future eruption. As magma cools it will turn into a crystal mush with ever lower amounts of eruptible magma contained in the mush. For a volcano to be able to have a buoyancy driven eruption it must contain a minimum of 40 percent of eruptible magma in the crystal mush.

Poor Yellowstone has only 5 to 15 percent of eruptible magma in its crystal mush. In plain words, this means that Yellowstone can’t currently erupt. That is, without receiving a rather sizeable batch of fresh hot magma from depth.

Now, before we talk about the volatiles, we must digress into something that normally is a good thing for volcanic explosive prowess, and that is in situ fractioning of magma reservoirs.

If you leave a vinaigrette in a bottle to its own devices it will happily separate into its constituent ingredients, oil and vinegar. The same goes for magma reservoirs.

The heavy stuff will slowly sink (heavy stuff is not good for big boomy eruptions), and the light stuff (mainly silicates) will slowly float up to the top (silicates are good for boom). Also, volatiles are light and will go up to the top, and the volatiles are good for boom.

This means that as hot new magma arrives it will cut through the heavy stale dough at the bottom and go for the juicy boomy stuff and the volatiles, heat that up, and if that happens in a big caldera system, a big boom will occur.

640 000 years is normally enough time to produce spectacular products for those who like explosive eruptions. There is just one problem.


Enter the stale dough

The problem is that Yellowstone has gone through this process of fractioning in 3 major cycles. All the light boomy stuff and the juicy volatiles available has already erupted, and left is the stale dough of volcanic dregs that prevent the bread to lift.

This means that if new magma entered the system there will be no ready supply of explosive stuff, and as the magma in the reservoir heats up it will be squeezed out like tooth-paste. We only need to look back roughly 3350 years (give or take 200) to find the last rather minor tooth-paste eruption.

So, instead of the giant fluffy pastry that Michio envisage, we will get a rather dull fibrous sourdough rye-bread. The latter is far healthier for you, regardless if we talk about a volcano, or artisanal baked goods.

The problem is not made better that our stale dough has spent the last 640 000 years degassing out of numerous orifices.

Unless someone can magically inject cubic kilometres of yeast and nutrients into the dough of Yellowstone the bread will become flat and dull, whatever Michio believes or not.

Now, let me kick some more misconceptions in the groin.


Beating the dead dough some more

Happily galumphing bison at Yellowstone. Photograph by Daniel Mayer, Wikimedia Commons.

Now and then Yellowstone, like all other large geologic features, suffers from spattering’s of earthquakes. Every single time this happens, people will quote Michio saying that Yellowstone will be the end of the world in a few minutes. Often using quite a few exclamation marks while quoting.

Problem is that not all earthquakes are equal. In large volcanoes you have 3 main types of earthquakes, those caused by inflation as magma enters the system, those caused by magma cooling and shrinking, and those caused by geologic faults meandering through the volcano in question.

To see what is what, you need to have studied geophysics and have access to the raw data. Without both things there is no way you can decide what type of earthquake it is.

At no time has earthquakes been detected at Yellowstone indicating arrival of new magma, or of other types associated with movement of magma, or of a type indicating that an eruption is near. There have though been a few earthquake episodes associated with what is called “movement of volcanic fluids”.

A non-scientist will read that phrase and think that the USGS is talking about magma. Instead they are talking about hydrothermal fluids (water, or water with gunk in it). I know, boring. But this is how geysers are born and they are nifty!

Instead most earthquakes are related to the major tectonic faults running through the caldera, and quite a bit of small earthquakes associated with the shrinking of the magma due to cooling.

In other words, even the earthquakes are telling the story about the ex-parrot pining for the fiords.

Now the volcanic Flat Earther Society and its chairman will be screaming at the top of their lungs, but the GPS is proving that there is uplift!!!

And yes indeed, there has at times been up towards a couple of inches of uplift at a couple of stations (out of many non-uplifting stations). Problem here is that other more active large caldera-systems can uplift several meters in a single day (without erupting).

Moving about is just one sign for a volcano, and it is one of the hardest to interpret. As one part goes up another will go down at another point in time, and the uplift is often not even caused by magma.

Volcanoes like Ischia and Iwo Jima has uplifted hundreds of meters at a steady rate, often with more than a meter per year. Atitlan is tilting an entire lake, drowning a Mayan city under 35 meters of water. An inch is miniscule in comparison.

Campi Flegrei uplifted 7 meters in 48 hours before erupting a small hill. Now, imagine what kind of uplift there would be in Yellowstone even before an eruption? Let me just use the words “Empire State Building” and you will understand better.

But, all volcanic Flat Earthers will disregard this since they believe that galumphing bison is a far better predictive tool than all the equipment and scientists studying the volcano.

Problem here is that they are forgetting that bison are grassing herd animals. They are also both easily angered and easily spooked. And their standard reaction is to either run towards what they are angry about, or away from the frog that goosed one of them. And running is easier after roads, even for a heard of large animals with horns.

So, instead of believing that they are psychically linked with magma, ponder the idea of a frog goosing them.

And the final nail in the coffin. Remember that I wrote that there has been a horseshoe shaped trail of large calderas across the Snake River Plain?

This is caused by the movement of the North American continent. In the beginning the continent moved in the opposite direction of today, that started to change roughly 14.2 million years ago as Iceland started to shove the world around.

Currently all of the North American Continent is being shoved towards the west south-west at a sedate pace.

This is a problem for the continuation of the Yellowstone caldera chain. So far it has been travelling across fairly thin crust filled with cracks, but it is in a short geological timespan going to start moving in under the North American Craton, an old thick very hard piece of the continent. And that will put a stop to the show. Permanently.



Dear Michio, could you kindly return to your day job as a TV-host and stop scaring people without cause? Seriously, the “Oh my GOD!!! We are gonna die!!!-spiel is even more stale than the dough inside the reservoir of Yellowstone.

Or, at least use Google Scholar and search for Yellowstone articles before ever speaking again about that (or any other) volcano.

Obviously I am not stating that Michio Kaku believes that the earth is flat. I am stating that in regards of volcanoes and volcanology he behaves like someone who believes that.


201 thoughts on “Michio Kaku and the stale dough

  1. And in other news, anecdotal info says that FEMA declared the areas impacted by the twin wedge tornadoes in Lee County AL as disaster zones. Also, NOAA says the second tornado had winds of 170mph.

  2. Iceland is requesting attention. An M2+ near Grimsvotn, a small quake at Hekla, and an (almost) M3 at Askja (looks tectonic). Grimsvotn took a breather after the earthquake activity of last year but is picking up again. Comparing to the run-up to 2004 and 2011, the current rate puts is within 600 days of an eruption. Of course, nothing ever repeats perfectly and the situation is not identical to than, and it could decide not to erupt until 2043.

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