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Yellowstone Helium

February 23, 2014 at 2:18 pm

My friend Scott Denning, knowing that I am obsessed with helium, pointed me to this piece about helium outgassing from the supervolcano beneath Yellowstone National Park.

The original publication in Nature is here, though it requires full access to the journal to read it entirely.  I had to read the abstract more than once, since I don't have a background in geophysics.  But I gather that the overall point is the the outgassing rate for He-4 at Yellowstone is high enough that it can only be explained as the release of already pent-up gas, not through the slow generation of new gas via radioactive decay of elements like uranium and thorium.  

This goes back to a point I've harped on again and again in my periodic (heh) screeds about helium.  The helium we have now is the result of a slow accumulation over millions of years.  The earth makes helium very, very slowly.  (And the overall rate of that production must be declining as the radioactive elements that produce helium via alpha decay are, well, decaying.)  So I'm sure the full importance of this result is lost on me.

Smithsonian Magazine
also has a piece about this discovery.  This adds an interesting caveat that the discovery adds uncertainty to the helium-dating technique that geophysicists use to date groundwater residence times. 

Cool stuff.  I'm not too worried about people trying to build a helium refinery inside Yellowstone.  And anyway, even if they did, that eyesore will get destroyed with the supervolcano erupts and drives us all to extinction.  So there's that.


Scott D. February 23, 2014 at 9:21 pm

When Yellowstone goes up and covers much of North America with ash and brings on Fimbulwinter, you and yours will always be welcome out at the farm. Where we can all keep warm by laughing at each other's squeaky voices from all the released helium.

Scott D. February 23, 2014 at 9:45 pm

Of course what the articles aren't saying (but of course They wouldn't) is that while Helium-4 is produced via alpha decay, it is also a byproduct of nuclear fusion.

So which should we worry about more? A super-eruption, or the Reptilian Overlords rising from below within their fusion-powered flight discs to resume their domination of the planet's surface?

Stev Halter February 27, 2014 at 5:50 am

Luckily our current overlords (cats) are fully prepared to deal with reptiles on flying discs.

Of course, it is probably good to note that helium filled balloons are one of the prime arc-enemies of catkind.

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