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If the Volcano Under Yellowstone Ever Erupts Again, We’re Seriously Screwed

If the Volcano Under Yellowstone Ever Erupts Again, We’re Seriously Screwed

There’s a supervolcano under Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. Scientists just figured out that the magma chamber beneath the park is bigger – much, much bigger – than they ever realized. One day an eruption will come. When it does, the scientists say the magnitude of impact will be “a global event.”

The magma chamber is about 20 miles wide, 55 miles long, and goes as deep as three to nine miles below the Earth’s surface, according to researchers who presented these findings recently to the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting in San Francisco. That’s roughly two and a half times as big as previously thought. It’s about 162 square miles of red hot molten magma.

“We’ve been working there for a long time, and we’ve always thought it would be bigger… but this finding is astounding,” said University of Utah Prof. Bob Smith.

What Exactly Would Happen if the Yellowstone Supervolcano Blew Today?

Judging by what happened the last time this particular volcano had a major eruption, the news is not good. About 640,000 years ago, the biggest known eruption from this volcano spewed ash over all of North America. Remember Mount St. Helens in 1980? That was baby stuff. Multiply that effect by about 2,000 to get an idea of the possible devastation.

To be sure, we wouldn’t see rivers of lava extending coast to coast. The damage of critical concern, U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) geologist Jake Lowenstern told io9.com, will result from a deep blanket of ash and pumice falling from the skies.

A “super eruption” would throw volcanic material throughout a 500 mile radius of the volcano. Envision a four-inch deep cloak of ash, smothering and polluting our midwestern farms and rivers. No farms, no food, as the saying goes. Cleaning it up would be a monstrous effort.

While the United States would be at the epicenter of such a disaster, the rest of the world would undoubtedly feel the effects as well.

“It would be a global event,” said the study’s lead author, University of Utah’s Jamie Farrell. “There would be a lot of destruction and a lot of impacts around the globe.”

“All this material that is shot up in the atmosphere would eventually circle the earth and would affect the climate throughout the world,” Farrell told the BBC.

Mount St. Helens erupting in 1980

Eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980 - Photo credit: U.S. Geological Survey/Wikimedia Commons

Is an Eruption Imminent? Should You Step Up Completion of Your Bucket List?

Don’t get worked up about this news, say researchers. This volcano, or “caldera” as it is more accurately known, has only experienced a super eruption three times – 2.1 million years ago, 1.3 million years ago and 640,000 years ago. Give or take, experts think this volcano has a big eruption every 700,000 years or so.

On the other hand, that 700,000 estimate is something of a wild guess, really.

“You can only use the time between eruptions [to work out the frequency], so in a sense you only have two numbers to get to that 700,000 year figure,” Prof. Smith told the BBC. ”How many people would buy something on the stock market on two days of stock data?”

When a super eruption is finally ready to happen, scientists say we’d have lots of warning signs. First we’d see earthquakes, which are necessary to break down the rocks that keep the magma under the ground.

Next we’d likely see blasts of lava and hot gas from fissures ripping open within a few miles of the volcano. These would cause the magma reservoir to drain and trigger the collapse of the caldera into a huge 1,500 square mile sinkhole.

The Volcano is Breathing

Fortunately, as with all volcanos, many smaller eruptions have been releasing internal pressure in the magma chamber over time.

“Calderas are big and hot, so they don’t break very easily and they just move up and down. It’s the way heat and gas get out of these deep systems — the system breathes,” Lowenstern said.

As National Geographic notes, the Yellowstone volcano is shifting and “breathing” all the time:

The park roils with geysers, fumaroles, mud volcanoes, and other hydrothermal activity. Half the geysers on the planet are in Yellowstone. The hydrothermal features change constantly in temperature and behavior, with new ones popping up in the forests, spewing clouds of steam visible from airplanes, exuding vapors that have been known to kill bison on the spot.

Most likely, none of us will need to worry about a super eruption in our lifetimes, or even within our great-great-great grandchildren’s lifetimes. One day, though, someone will need to worry. The Yellowstone supervolcano is sleeping, but the slumbering giant will awaken one day. The Earth won’t be the same when it does.

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Photo credit: Thinkstock

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151 comments

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1:53PM PDT on Oct 17, 2014

?

4:39AM PDT on Oct 17, 2014

The warning from our homeland

10:19AM PDT on Oct 16, 2014

If this or other super volcanoes blow ....OoooPPS! GAME OVER!

1:34PM PDT on Oct 3, 2014

The main problem with the GOP is that it has abandoned traditional republican positions. Can you believe at one time republicans actually cared about fiscal responsibility? Sadly though it has been over 50 years since a republican president submitted a balanced budget to congress. Today republicans are just for the all powerful government.

1:19PM PDT on Oct 3, 2014

Neil, that is a strange comment. Even assuming that the US is evil, how is that connected to a volcano under yellowstone? Are you saying Yellowstone is evil?

1:35AM PDT on Oct 2, 2014

USA is rather evil in some aspects & the GOP needs cleaning out along with some Dems & AIPAC etc unfortunatelyinnocent might also die!

8:50PM PDT on Sep 30, 2014

That's the way nature rolls

5:45AM PST on Jan 2, 2014

happy new year to all living beings on our beautiful planet earth

5:01AM PST on Jan 2, 2014

Hi Thomas L R: thanks for the link. This is probably the film that was broadcast by the BBC. Very edifying.

One comment that has been missing in the thread is: what are the chances of human activity accelerating the eruption? Letting Nature take it's course is often no longer an option these days.

There are other eruptions waiting to happen and an obvious one is Vesusius - Pompei and Herculaneum will become minor events if the volcano enters into eruption now. The most optimistic estimates give three days for evacuating the city but who will press the 'go' button? A false alarm would cause outrage, even given that Vesusius is monitored 24/7 for signs of eruption.

Interesting times...

4:08AM PST on Jan 2, 2014

Thank you

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Colleen H. Colleen H. is an Online Campaigner with Care2 and a recent transplant to San Francisco from the East... more
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