15 Dangerous Beauty
In the 1960s, while studying the volcanic history of Yellowstone National Park, Bob Christiansen of the United States Geological Survey became puzzled about something that, oddly, had not troubled anyone before: he couldn't find the park's volcano. It had been known for a long time that Yellowstone was volcanic in nature—that's what accounted for all its geysers and other steamy features—and the one thing about volcanoes is that they are generally pretty conspicuous. But Christiansen couldn't find the Yellowstone volcano anywhere. In particular what he couldn't find was a structure known as a caldera.
Most of us, when we think of volcanoes, think of the classic cone shapes of a Fuji or Kilimanjaro, which are created when erupting magma accumulates in a symmetrical mound. These can form remarkably quickly. In 1943, at Paricutin in Mexico, a farmer was startled to see smoke rising from a patch on his land. In one week he was the bemused owner of a cone five hundred feet high. Within two years it had topped out at almost fourteen hundred feet and was more than half a mile across. Altogether there are some ten thousand of these intrusively visible volcanoes on Earth, all but a few hundred of them extinct. But there is a second, less celebrated type of volcano that doesn't involve mountain building.