A DEBATE RECENTLY ERUPTED on the importance of monitoring volcanoes in the United States. Political maneuvering, not geological discovery, sparked the dispute. One side proposed that $15 million be allocated for the volcano monitoring. The other side knocked the proposal as wasteful.

Honest individuals can disagree over such research investments. But there's little disagreement—at least among experts—that, when it comes to volcanoes, big things lie ahead. The questions are, how big is "big"? And, how far ahead is "ahead"?

Consider Yellowstone National Park. An almost unprecedented number of seismic tremors have been recorded there in recent months. Does this signal a near-term eruption? Maybe. Then again, maybe not. It's been 640,000 years since Yellowstone's last major eruption. That one blew a hole the size of Connecticut in Earth's crust. Experts feel the next major eruption is now overdue (see The Week, March 27, 2009, page 13).

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May 11, 2009

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