This Super Volcano Has Scientists Freaking Out – Deep beneath Yellowstone National Park and its picturesque hot springs lurks a monster of unimaginable proportions, waiting in a very fitful slumber and ready to wipe humanity off the face of the earth. Directly under the national park, one of the most visited in the world, likes a plume of liquid magma five miles deep, itself fed by a huge plume of molten rock that boils up from deep beneath the earth’s crust.
The churning magma directly beneath Yellowstone is so voluminous that it regularly causes the entire national park to rise and fall by inches at a time. From time to time the pressure beneath Yellowstone gets to be too much, and a volcanic eruption occurs- although overwhelmingly these are relatively minor and are comparable in size to a moderately sized, traditional volcano.
However, every 600,000 years or so the pocket of magma beneath Yellowstone builds up so much pressure that the entire park explodes outwards, in an incredibly violent event known as a super volcano eruption. Such an eruption can have widespread consequences for the entire earth, enveloping the planet in volcanic ash and plummeting global temperatures, causing a small ice age which can decimate all life.
In North America though extinction is all but guaranteed, and we should thank our lucky stars that these super eruptions happen so rarely. Yet today scientists have confirmed that Yellowstone can, and will, blow its top in a super eruption by the end of this year, 2019- or at any time in the next 400,000 years.
By discovering geologic evidence of past Yellowstone eruptions, scientists have been able to pinpoint three major eruptions, with the first being 2.1 million years ago, the second 1.3 million years ago, and the third 630,000 years ago. This has led some scientists to predict that Yellowstone is likely to blow again in the next half million years or so, meaning that it could happen as soon as tomorrow.
It could happen by the time you finish watching this video. Or it could happen later today, when you’re on your way to the store. Boom- you’re trying to buy some snacks and instead you get the extinction of the human race. Point is, Yellowstone is trying to kill all of us and it could happen at literally anytime.
But as many scientists point out, three data points is far from sufficient for establishing a reliable pattern. Right now Yellowstone seems to have a recurrence interval of between 500,000 and 1 million years, which would put us overdue for a major eruption. Yet with only three data points the previous eruption cycles could have been abnormalities, and not an actual pattern.
Yellowstone might never explode again, instead maintaining low-level volcanic activity until the North American tectonic plate slides away from the bubble of hot magma under Yellowstone. Or, Yellowstone could be waiting for you to fall asleep tonight, to murder you and everyone you love in your sleep. There’s just no way to tell with such little data.
If- or when- Yellowstone blows though it’s going to be one for the record books, if there’s any humans left alive to keep records. The last eruption 640,000 years ago ejected 1,000 cubic kilometers of material, enough to bury all of Texas five feet deep in volcanic ash. By comparison, one of the largest eruptions in the modern age happened when the Novarupta volcano blew its top in 1912, resulting in 13 cubic kilometers of material.
That’s basically the difference between a hand grenade and a 2,000 pound bunker busting munition. But what if Yellowstone woke up tomorrow and decided it was sick and tired of all the tourist staking selfies atop its head? What if at last Yellowstone punched our ticket and did its best to wipe out the entire human race? Imagine you’re visiting the most famous national park in the world with your family.
You’re all excited to see Old Faithful, because watching hot water shoot up into the air is apparently the neatest thing since sliced bread. Grudgingly you tag along though, and when you get to the hot springs you have to admit that they are kind of beautiful. Thanks to specialized bacteria that live in the really acidic and extremely hot water, the springs are colored in a rainbow explosion of colors, and you can’t help but snap a selfie up against a backdrop that looks like a giant vomited skittles all over the landscape.
But as you’re lining up the perfect selfie, you suddenly feel the ground underneath you start shaking. It’s over in a second though, so you figure meh, whatever, just a small quake. Then though, there’s another mini quake, and then a third. Suddenly Old Faithful in front of you explodes in a showery display of super heated water-but there’s a problem, it’s early. Like, really, really early.
Typically the park rangers predict when old faithful will blow based off the height of the previous eruption and its duration, but it’s been just a few minutes and suddenly here she is again, spewing hot water 100 feet into the air. Something’s not quite right, so you and your family decide to make a semi-calm dash for the car.
So you’re aware that the swarm of mini quakes could be bad news. Very, very bad news. As you start making your way to the park exit, you do some reading up on Yellowstone and come across a host of articles online all saying that there’s been a massive amount of earthquakes in the area over the last couple months.
What you don’t realize however is that all of those earthquakes have been the result of a massive bubble of magma slowly making its way to the surface, riding along that five mile plume deep beneath the earth. As the magma was forced upwards, it triggered swarms of earthquakes for months which all rumbled and shook the rock directly above it, shattering them and paving the way for an eruption.
You make it to the park exit when suddenly there’s a major earthquake, much bigger than anything before. To your horror the earth cracks open all around you, and rivulets of magma start streaming out from several dozen places around the park. The road you’re on splits and cracks, leaving impassable crevices and holes- cars are officially useless, so you do what seems like the logical thing and get out and start running.
You’re not sure where to run to exactly, but your brain has a pretty good idea that ‘away’is as good a direction as any. As you pump your feet though the earth rumbles one final time, and suddenly, the Yellowstone caldera explodes outwards, no longer able to resist the incredible pressures building from below. For you, the story is over here.
If you’re caught in the actual explosion then your body, down to the bones, will become part of the giant ash cloud belching up into the sky. Magma up to 2400 degrees incinerates your body, but not before the super heated and very toxic gases that envelop you fry your lungs to carbon. Death is instantaneous, with the incredible heat boiling your brain in milliseconds, and causing your skull to explode outwards from the build up of steam. Congratulations, because you’re officially one of the lucky ones.
For the rest of us, Yellowstone has a much longer, lingering death in store. Volcanic explosions rock an area of about 40 miles or so, ejecting millions of tons of lava. Volcanic ash made up of pulverized rock and jagged shards of glass makes its way into the atmosphere, where the winds begin to spread it around to the surrounding countryside in an almost perfect umbrella shape.
Over the next few weeks a whopping 240 cubic miles of eject a is spit out by the Yellowstone volcano, though only about a third of it makes it into the atmosphere. That’s more than enough however to bury the entirety of the Northern rockies in an astonishing three feet of ash. Wyoming, Idaho, Colorado, Montana and Utah are all paralyzed by the extremely acidic ash.
Residents of these states begin to die by the thousands due to inhalation of the ash,which fills the lungs and suffocates, but also cuts and lacerates the lungs and trachea thanks to the very sharp and jagged particles of glass. Venting of highly noxious gases across the 40 mile eruption zone also spreads suffocating and toxic gas across hundreds of miles of terrain, making its way into the underground shelters of the few survivors who lived through the initial explosion.
Hydrogen sulfide and other gases kill tens of thousands in their sleep, silently suffocating victims. The three feet of ash also paralyze industry and travel. Roads are impassable, and the very fine ash wreaks havoc in vehicles, damaging electronics and gumming up even the most robust engines. Emergency services are effectively shut down, and air travel in the region is impossible.
Anyone caught in the area of the northern rockies is doomed, with no hope for escape. To make matters worse, the ash also wends its way into rivers and lakes, even down into subsurface aquifers, and there it poisons the water. Millions of thirty survivors are forced to drink brackish water which slowly poisons them, killing them in a matter of weeks or even days.
In a few days the ash clouds move over the mid west, and lay down thick carpets of black ash half a foot thick. By day four of the eruption no air travel across the heart of the United States is possible,and here too the ash paralyzes all forms of ground transportation as well. Power plants shut down, their equipment damaged by the ash clouds or starved of the oil or gas they need to operate thanks to a nationwide traffic shut-down.
To make matters worse, the mid west grows the majority of the US’s crops, and the thick ash suffocates all vegetation. Here too the ash poisons water supplies, and clean drinking water becomes an extreme rarity. By the end of the week an inch or two of ash has fallen on both the east and west coast.
Despite being so close to Yellowstone prevailing wind patterns have prevented much of the ash from making its way to California and other west coast states, although now they find themselves with two inches of dangerous volcanic ash. The fine particles wreak havoc on electronics, and much of America’s modern infrastructure is destroyed.
Just about every drinking source in the United States is contaminated to some degree, and FEMA rushes to try and provide decontamination kits to a surviving population of three hundred million. The rest of the world breathes a sigh of relief- they have after all avoided the biggest bulletin the history of mankind.
Yet what they don’t realize is that the Yellowstone eruption has put millions upon millions of tons of sulfur aerosols into the atmosphere, and these begin to reflect sunlight back into space. Within weeks the entire planet is wrapped in a cloak of sulfuric particles, and so much sunlight is being reflected back into space that global temperatures drop by a degree. At first, the planet barely notices- the temperature drop helping to stabilize global warming trends thanks to mankind’s carbon emissions.
But over the following weeks the temperature drops even more. The Pinatubo eruption in 1991 cooled the planet by 7 degrees, and the Tambora eruption of 1815 lead to what was termed the year without summer, causing widespread crop failures. Yellowstone’s eruption is many, many times greater than either of those two, and now temperatures drop so low that winter officially lasts for eighty years- a prediction based off the effects of two previous eruptions.
Mankind digs in for an eighty year Game of Thrones LARP event, because winter is officially here and it’s not leaving for eight decades. Some regions of the planet may remain habitable, and crops may be sustainable in small numbers along the equatorial regions of the planet. However, the vast majority of humanity will die off, and those that survive will quickly learn to stay out of direct sunlight no matter how cold they are.
Thanks to those same sulfuric aerosols that brought us seasons 9 through 89 of Game of Thrones, the ozone layer is so damaged that harmful UV radiation bakes the planet, causing sunburn within minutes. Eventually the ozone layer will restore itself, and the environment will return to a normal state- but in all likelihood both of those things will happen far too late for our technologically dependent species to survive.
Yet it’s important to remember that terrifying as this scenario is, scientists are reasonably sure that there’s little reason to worry, as Yellowstone may never erupt again. Or, it could erupt tonight, while you’re sleeping. Like we said, there’s just not enough data points to know for sure.
How would you try to survive a Yellowstone eruption? Think we could find a way to vent the pressure on the giant super volcano and save ourselves? Let us know in the comments.