South California is being invaded by a goopy, bubbling mess of mud that stinks of rotten eggs. The Niland Geyser (or "Slow One") is on the move and it emanates from near the southern side of the same source as the hypothetical "Big One", the San Andreas Fault.
The good news is that there is absolutely nothing to suggest that it is a precursor to an earthquake – indeed, the area has seen less seismic activity than usual over the past few months, Science Advisor for Risk Reduction for the US Geological Survey (USGS), Ken Hudnut, told the Los Angeles Times.
But it has ramped up speed more recently and it is getting disconcertingly close to a line of fiber optic cables, a petroleum pipeline, a section on Highway 111, and a freight railroad track heading to Yuma, Arizona.
The geyser itself is not new – it has existed since 1953 and it has been moving for the last 11 years. However, what could have been described as a slow and steady crawl has accelerated in 2018. First, it drifted 60 feet (18 meters) in a matter of months. Then, Imperial Country officials say, it moved 60 feet in a single day. Now, it takes up a space that is roughly 2,230 square meters (24,000 square feet) large, 5 meters (18 feet) deep, and 23 meters (75 feet) wide.
"It's a slow-moving disaster," Imperial County’s fire chief and emergency services coordinator, Alfredo Estrada, told the Los Angeles Times.
There is added pressure because previous attempts to slow it down or divert it out of harm's way haven't come through, from draining and redirecting some of its water to building a 30-meter-long (100-foot), 23-meter (75-foot) deep underground wall with boulders and steel. As for the latter, the muddy spring slipped under the wall and continued on, The Weather Channel reports.
So instead, officials are trying to move out of its way. The California Department of Transportation has said it may temporarily shut down some of Highway 111 if the geyser continues on its current path, and Union Pacific – the freight hauling railroad company – is setting up temporary tracks and lowering the speed limit for passing trains. (Though a spokesperson for the company has admitted they may have to seek out longer-term solutions, like a bridge, if the problem doesn't sort itself out.)
While this is a massive pain from an infrastructure point of view, the geyser is moving at a pace slower than your common garden snail – even at its speediest, the Los Angeles Times reports.
Unlike Old Faithful at Yellowstone (a hot spring), it doesn't get its heat from molten rock but from carbon dioxide that is being formed deep below the Earth's surface, most likely from thousands of years' worth of loose sediment discarded by the Colorado River as it is forced deeper underground. The heat cooks the sediment, turning it into sandstone or greenschist rock, which produce carbon dioxide, Hudnut told the Los Angeles Times. It isn't even that hot – reaching temperatures of just under 27°C (80°F).
Advice to the public is to stay clear – get too close and you might fall in. A combination of toxic gas (CO2) and a lack of oxygen could cause suffocation in a matter of minutes. Fortunately, levels of CO2 taper off within just a few meters.
[H/T: Los Angeles Times]