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With budget-cutting gusto, Congress is debating whether to shut down the Department of Energy and its suite of national laboratories. But if the politicians in Washington wrangle long enough, a giant volcano in New Mexico may do some of the work for them.

The Valles caldera, one of the largest volcanoes in the United States, looms over the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), where J. Robert Oppenheimer oversaw the development of the atomic bomb in the mid-1940s. Two geoscientists warn that the Valles caldera could be gearing up for an eruption that would cover Los Alamos and many small towns in the region.

They cannot say, however, whether the blast will come anytime soon.

"The chances are small, but the consequences potentially are so devastating that it makes sense to take some simple precautions," says John A. Wolff of the University of Texas at Arlington. Wolff and Jamie N. Gardner of LANL describe their work in the May Geology.

The caldera--a crater 25 kilometers in diameter--developed during two major eruptions 1.6 and 1.2 million years ago. Geologists consider caldera-forming eruptions the largest class of volcanic explosions, but there is no historical record of any. For that reason, scientists do not know what signs lead up to caldera eruptions.

Two sets of findings raise concern about the threat at Valles, say Wolff and Gardner. According to new dating studies, the last eruption in the caldera occurred 60,000 years ago, relatively recently by geologic standards. Moreover, the microscopic texture of rock ejected during that blast indicates that the volcano entered a new phase of volcanic activity then.

Scientists know that the crust beneath the caldera is hot and may contain a reservoir of molten rock. An eruption could come tomorrow, or it could wait for 20,000 years, Wolff says.

Although the chances of a blast right now appear slim, Wolff and Gardner urge the state or federal government to establish a relatively inexpensive monitoring program to keep tabs on the earthquakes and land movement in the caldera region that might warn of any impending eruption.
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Title Annotation:estrogen compound diethylstilbestrol
Author:Raloff, Janet
Publication:Science News
Date:May 27, 1995
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