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Is Yellowstone losing steam? Trees might hold a clue

| December 12, 2010 8:00 PM

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) - A U.S. Geological Survey scientist plans to study trees in Yellowstone National Park to determine whether geysers are losing steam, and maybe even get a better idea of how to predict earthquakes.

Some trees near Mammoth Hot Springs date back to the 1500s, said Bill Evans, and determining the amount of carbon dioxide trapped in them by taking core samples and examining tree rings might tell scientists whether the amount of carbon dioxide being released in the area has fluctuated over time.

He said it's possible earthquake swarms in the park might be caused by high-pressure carbon dioxide rather than an intrusion of magma.

"If we can identify some seismic events that are caused by carbon dioxide, then we can look for the characteristics of it that are identified in the next swarm," Evans told the Billings Gazette.

He also said the information could give scientists clues about whether those fluctuations are associated with earthquakes and other geological events.

"We consider the Yellowstone caldera restless," Evans said. "The caldera floor goes up and down. Some of the nice lake basins are explosion craters. In the USGS, we worry about being able to recognize what leads up to one of these explosions."

Evans took part in a tree study in the park that looked at a possible link between the release of carbon dioxide and a 1978 earthquake swarm.

"The 1978 seismic swarm was associated with a huge cloud of carbon dioxide," Evans said.

Evans said the tree core samples might give scientists a better idea of where and how to monitor the park. He said scientists using CO2 monitors will be able to set up at earthquake swarms to measure carbon dioxide.

He said that kind of information might be of help in determining what indicators are useful in trying to predict earthquakes and other seismic events.

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