Yellowstone Supervolcano Eruption: Fantasy or Legitimate Doomsday Scenario?
A little over a decade ago, I heard Yellowstone National Park is home to a supervolcano that is overdue for an eruption. Supervolcano? Overdue? What makes a volcano “super” and what is the impact of a supervolcano eruption? A supervolcano can spew over 1,000 cubic kilometers of volcanic material in a single eruption. This can have devastating effects on the planet, potentially returning us to the dark ages. The largest Yellowstone eruption of 2,240 cubic kilometers of material occurred over 2.1 million years ago. On average, Yellowstone erupts once every 600,000-700,000 years. The last eruption occurred roughly 640,000 years ago. Some scientists therefore suggest that Yellowstone is overdue for its next eruption.
Yellowstone has been in the news a bit more recently due to increasing geyser activity. People attempt to draw conclusions that frequent geyser eruptions indicate the possibility of a volcanic eruption. This is not the case. The geysers have erupted with the same frequency in the 1960s and 1980s. The heavy snowfall at Yellowstone the past few years have created more groundwater, which is likely why these geysers are erupting. We can put that argument to bed then. We’re still left with the argument that Yellowstone is overdue, so let’s look into it.
Is Yellowstone Really Overdue?
In a study performed by the U.S. Geological Survey, geologists examined the pools of magma resting below the surface of Yellowstone. They found that there is little to no difference in the magma activity when compared to the activity occurring 300,000 years ago. The absence of change likely means that Yellowstone isn’t due to erupt anytime soon. While stating that Yellowstone is 40,000 years overdue for its next eruption will get people to click on a post, that doesn’t make the statement true. Moreover, when dealing with timescales of hundreds of thousands a years, a single incidence (eruption) is incredibly unlikely to happen in the average human’s lifetime (roughly 80 years). We have another 60,000 for Yellowstone to erupt before it moves outside the average. Statistics should bring us comfort, let alone the latest study of the magma activity. I’ll say with confidence that no, Yellowstone is not overdue.
What About Other Supervolcanoes?
There are 6 known supervolcanoes, though unknown supervolcanoes likely exist underwater. Each of these volcanic eruptions would dwarf the Mt. St Helens eruption in 1980.
Currently, there are no signs of an imminent supervolcano eruption at any of the 6 known sites. Scientists, however, are concerned by some of the activity occurring at the second largest supervolcano in North America, the Long Valley Caldera. In 1979 and 1980, strong earthquakes at the site of the Long Valley Caldera drew the attention of geologists. Sensors were installed at the location of the supervolcano and found that there is increasing geologic activity. In the 1990’s, trees began dying off due to the carbon dioxide gas emitted from the magma located beneath the soil. These developments coax scientists to monitor the supervolcano, but they do not mean that an eruption is around the corner. It’s encouraging to know that advances in technology and geology could provide us with forewarning should geologic activity grow more alarming.
As far as SHTF events go, we should slot a supervolcano eruption low on the list of ranked possibilities. We can take comfort in timescales of hundreds of thousands of years and the relative calm below the surface. Our monitoring systems will give us advanced warning of any potential eruptions. As of now, there isn’t any cause for immediate concern. We should instead focus on problems we can control, rather than those lurking below the Earth’s surface.
What do you think about a supervolcano eruption as an unlikely SHTF event? Leave a comment below or contact me directly.