X-ray Yellowstone FAQ

posted: 12/14/12

Q: Yellowstone National Park encompasses how many acres of land?

A: Yellowstone contains more than 2 million acres - stretching across 3,000 square miles -- of some of America's roughest terrain. It is home to hundreds of animal species and was the world's first national park.

Q: What is Yellowstone's most lethal predator?

A: Canis lupus - the grey wolf, is the park's fiercest predator.

Q: Why did thermal imaging show a grey wolf losing significant amounts of heat through its skin?

A: Analysis revealed that mites were attacking the wolf's fur coat. When the wolf scratches at the mites, it loses fur, exposing itself to the bitter cold of Yellowstone. The wolf then needs extra calories to generate enough heat to stay warm.

Q: What is the fate of the grey wolves in Yellowstone?

A: In the face of brutally cold winter temperatures and declining elk numbers, the fate of Yellowstone's wolves is unclear.

Q: What causes a geyser?

A: Boiling pressurized water from deep underground explodes to the surface, creating a stunning display.

Q: What created the vast, sunken crater that is Yellowstone Park?

A: A super-volcano that erupted some 640,000 years ago -- with the power of 1,000 nuclear bombs every second - shaped modern-day Yellowstone.

Q: How big is the Yellowstone super-volcano's magma chamber?

A: Thanks to earthquake data, the first-ever seismic X-ray of Yellowstone's magma chamber revealed that five miles down is the top of a massive chamber of hot, volcanic rock trapped in the Earth's crust. The chamber is 25 miles wide and 50 miles long. The magma reservoir is bigger in area than the state of Rhode Island. It's also the source of Yellowstone's geysers and quakes.

Q: What feeds the Yellowstone magma chamber?

A: A massive plume of heated rock extending 400 miles below the surface supplies the magma chamber with its hot, volcanic rock.

Q: Why is it important to know how much magma is in the magma chamber?

A: Knowing how much magma is in the chamber is critical to understanding when another eruption might occur.

Q: What sets off the countdown to a volcanic eruption?

A: When pressure in the magma chamber reaches a critical state, the countdown to the next eruption begins. When the molten rock starts to cool inside the chamber, tiny crystals form. The crystals release gas-filled bubbles, causing pressure to rise and the magma to swell.

Q: How powerful would an eruption of the Yellowstone super-volcano be?

A: If the Yellowstone super-volcano were to erupt, "powerful" doesn't even begin to describe it. An eruption would have the potential to destroy the western United States and beyond.

Q: How long before the Yellowstone super-volcano erupts again?

A: For decades, scientists believed it would take tens of thousands of years for an eruption to build. But Curiosity "X-ray Yellowstone" rock scientist, Guil Gualda, doesn't agree. Using a CT X-ray scanner, Gualda examined volcanic pumice rocks created during the ancient super eruption of Yellowstone's volcano, "X-raying" the past. Once the warning signs of a build-up begin, a super eruption may only be a few centuries away -- much sooner than anyone thought.

Q: How many lives per year do avalanches claim?

A: Avalanches claim 150 lives a year worldwide.

Q: How fast can an avalanche come down a mountain?

A: A full-blown avalanche can reach speeds of more than 200 miles per hour.

Q: How high are the peaks in Yellowstone?

A: More than 40 peaks in Yellowstone soar more than 10,000 feet in the air.

Q: What is the key to understanding avalanches?

A: Weak bonds in the snow beneath the surface are dangerous and difficult to detect. These weak bonds are the key to understanding avalanches.

Q: What causes weak bonds in snow?

A: The Curiosity "X-ray Yellowstone" team set up a cold chamber and replicated avalanche conditions in Yellowstone, creating layers in a snow pack in an effort to produce a weakness in the subsurface. A 3-D motion-tracking camera picked up every minute change. Then they applied downward pressure, just as a skier would. The snow pack split apart in a matter of seconds, which at full-scale would have triggered an avalanche. The investigation revealed that the snow had shape-shifted -- the strong bonds had given way to loosely packed snow particles - and that it is spring sunshine that weakens the bonds between layers of snow. This event is the cause of dozens of deaths worldwide every year.

Q: What is the fastest creature on Earth?

A: The peregrine falcon is the fastest creature on Earth. The raptors perform hunting dives at up to 200 miles per hour, zeroing in on their prey with deadly, clinical precision.

Q: How did the Curiosity "X-ray Yellowstone" team study the flight of the peregrine falcon?

A: The team had the help of Sibley, a rescue falcon, whose movements were captured at 5,000 frames per second on slow-motion cameras.

Q: How do peregrine falcons accelerate so quickly from a dead stop?

A: X-rays of Sibley in flight showed that falcon skeletons are very flexible. The X-rays also revealed that peregrines store energy in their wing tips to help them achieve the "turbo boost" of energy, which takes just one second to produce the massive level of force needed to defy gravity.

Q: How does a peregrine falcon not only survive but control the dives it makes of up to 200 miles per hour?

A: The falcon is bombarded with pockets of air turbulence and wind gusts that should slow it down or throw it off target. But X-rays revealed that a falcon's wing muscles flex to instantaneously adapt to any atmospheric change with an almost computerized precision.

Q: Are there any deadly snakes in Yellowstone National Park?

A: The prairie rattlesnake is the park's only deadly snake.

Q: How does the cold-blooded prairie rattlesnake survive the extreme temperature shifts of Yellowstone?

A: Snakes have to digest their food fast enough that their prey does not decay and release deadly bacteria. Such efficient digestion usually requires warm temperatures, which is why these snakes are normally found at lower altitudes. But Curiosity "X-ray Yellowstone" researchers found that the snake is able to digest its food in Yellowstone's colder climate thanks to its venom, which increases the rate of digestion. The chemistry of the prairie rattlesnake's venom is richer in a protein that targets and digests the flesh of its prey. Most rattlesnakes have this protein, but in smaller amounts. The prairie rattlers, however, have adapted over thousands of years to produce more.

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