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How a supervolcano can threaten Earth

By Amanda Sealy, CNN

Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming (CNN) – It’s hard not to stand in complete awe of everything the Earth has to offer when you’re in the middle of Yellowstone National Park.

Its most famous geyser, Old Faithful, shoots up into the sky as crowds tilt their heads just to see how high it really can go. The saturated blues and greens of geothermal pools appear to be otherworldly.

Towering mountains wrap themselves around the park, providing shelter for wild animals to roam. But below the beauty of Yellowstone, is a volcano powerful enough devastate most of the United States and change the entire world.

“Yellowstone and other volcanoes around the world are called supervolcanoes and the reason is they’re like a super sized drink. It means it’s just big,” says Hank Hessler, a geologist at Yellowstone in the U.S. state of Wyoming.

Supervolcano describes a geological phenomenon never witnessed by man. Supervolcanoes are off the charts big when comparing them to a normal volcanic eruption.

On May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens in the northwest corner of the United States erupted. It killed 57 people and expelled one cubic kilometer of ash.

The first Yellowstone supervolcanic eruption 2.1 million years ago was at least 25,000 times larger than the Mount St. Helens eruption. Two other Yellowstone super eruptions 1.3 million and 640,000 years ago, though smaller than the first one, would still dwarf any normal volcanic eruption.

Few would expect the tranquil national park would actually be sitting on the mouth of a sleeping giant.

The physical characteristic of a supervolcano isn’t a typical cone-shaped mountainous peak.

Instead, supervolcanoes have what are called calderas. These are vast sunken areas that are formed after previous super eruptions as the ground was blown out and fell back to rest.

Geophysicist Bob Smith first called Yellowstone a “living breathing caldera” in 1979. He now heads the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory at the University of Utah.

“Yellowstone has been very important. It’s my laboratory,” says Smith.

He sees Yellowstone as more than a supervolcano, in fact he doesn’t even like that term. “I prefer to use the term hotspot because it reflects a zone of concentrated and active volcanism.”

Hawaii and Iceland are other examples of hot spots, but Yellowstone is the only hot spot located underneath land rather than sea which has made it easier for Smith to study.

His team has setup a series of different sensors around the park so that they can keep a close eye on its vital signs. They measure ground movement and record the frequent earthquakes that occur in the area.

The sensors have also helped Smith’s team figure out what they were dealing with. As little as eight kilometers below the surface is a shallow reservoir of solid rock and magma. And below the reservoir is an enormous 57,000-cubic-kilometer plume of very hot rock, the fuel behind every bubbling pool and geyser in Yellowstone.

With all of this heat just sitting, waiting beneath Yellowstone, what exactly would it look like if it were all to blow? Smith and other scientists all have scenarios and every one is bleak.

In Smith’s book, “Windows into the Earth,” he says, “Devastation would be complete and incomprehensible.” Before the super eruption, large earthquakes would likely swarm the surrounding areas until the huge blast that would erase Yellowstone completely off the map.

After the initial eruption, clouds of gas and rock would burn everything in its path with temperatures reaching to hundreds of degrees Celsius. Ashfall would cover the western United States and also enter the jet stream with the potential to cripple air transportation and threaten the world’s food supply.

There are some estimates that 87,000 people would die immediately.

You can imagine that with this kind of catastrophe on the line, the question Smith gets asked the most is, “When is going to blow next?”

The three Yellowstone super eruptions have occurred about 800,000 years apart, so people have started to speculate that another one is due.

Also, in 2004 Smith noticed that the ground had started to rise then lowered again in 2010. It was like the supervolcano was breathing.

However, Smith says there is absolutely no need to panic. “We create scenarios. We know roughly what to expect of the patterns of time and space of the earthquakes ground information. Again, acquired from other experiences around the world. We use that to interpret our own data in terms of what the potential threat or risk might be,” says Smith.

For him, the more immediate threat is earthquakes and smaller eruptions since the probability of one of those instances occurring is much higher.

Whether that may be comforting or not, millions of visitors will still make their way each year to the geological wonderland that is Yellowstone National Park.

Read more about a Yellowstone Eruption.

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Surviving the Volcano

While it is not really possible to prevent a volcanic eruption, you may be able to survive one. With some planning ahead, you might just make it through the eruption and nuclear winter that would follow.

The first thing to do is have a shelter. You’ll need to get as far away from the volcano as possible because of lava flow, vents, and earthquakes. Also, the shelter should not be anywhere near a fault line as earthquakes are a side effect of a massive eruption. Make sure that wherever and whatever your shelter is, you have the ability to recycle and recirculate air. There really is no telling how long you would be stuck there (think District 13 for those Hunger Games fans out there).

Once you have a shelter picked out and ready, you’ll need to stock up on water and non-perishable food. Make sure that you and anyone you take in could be self-sustained for at least a few months. Remember, even if you want to venture out in the aftermath to search for food, the plants and animals (if even still alive) will be toxic.

You’ll also need to have some basic survival gear like goggles and filter masks to protect you from the ash. Make sure to have plenty of towels so that you can dampen them and stuff them anywhere air might get in. The damp towels will work as a sort of filter for the outside air making sure that the ash does not inundate your shelter. Lastly, until the ash clears it will be very much like a nuclear winter. Make sure you have plenty of warm clothes and blankets. If for any reason you go outside, have an outer layer you can strip off before you reenter your shelter. Once the volcanic ash is in, you won’t be able to get rid of it.

It may not be a perfect solution, but if you have the above in place, you have a better chance of surviving a volcanic eruption than most. Is there anything else you can think of that you would need?

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Volcanoes in Hollywood

Volcanoes erupt. They provide little warning and there is not much you can do to prevent this devastating natural disaster. This is portrayed perfectly in our top movie about volcanoes, Dante’s Peak. This 1997 film featuring Pierce Brosnan, Linda Hamilton, and Charles Hallahan is entertaining with great character development, romance, and suspense.

The movie begins with a volcanic eruption in Columbia during which volcanologist Dr. Harry Daltons’ fiancée is killed. The story then moves four years into the future to a little town called Dante’s Peak. The town is situated on a dormant volcano, but Daltons is there investigating some unusual activity. After some investigation, Daltons decides the town should be alerted, but his boss doesn’t think the danger is high enough to warrant the cost of an evacuation. Daltons goes directly to the mayor, Rachel Wando, to convince her of the danger.

Just in case there is someone out there who has still not seen this movie, we won’t reveal any spoilers, but it is worth the hour and half viewing time. I will warn you, this is not a feel good movie. They actually stayed pretty true to what would happen if an eruption occurred.

What do you think? Did you like the movie? Is there another volcano disaster movie that should have been our favorite?

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Interview with Physicist Dr. Michio Kaku

Check this great interview from CNN with Dr. Kaku about Yellowstone.

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What Are The Chances?

The Yellowstone supervolcano has erupted three times in the past 2.1 million years and some say we are overdue for another. What are the chances that it will erupt within our lifetime and leave the human race fighting for survival?

Scientists have noticed the land above the caldera rising slowly since 2004. In fact, over the last eight years the ground has risen as much as ten inches in some places throughout the park. While this may sound like a sign the volcano is destined to erupt soon, University of Utah geophysicist Robert B. Smith believes we are in no imminent danger.

“These calderas tend to go up and down, up and down,” Smith said.

For example, records show that between 1976 and 1984 the caldera rose 7 inches. Then, without a major eruption, the ground sank 5.5 inches through the next ten years, almost back to normal. While the ground rising could be evidence of a coming eruption, the more important fact is if the magma is rising.

“At the beginning we were concerned it could be leading up to an eruption,” Smith said, “but once we saw [the magma] was at a depth of ten kilometers we weren’t so concerned.”

The United States Geological Survey is not concerned either. They have officially stated that a devastating eruption is highly improbably within the next five to ten generations.

So while it looks like we have nothing to worry about, mother nature is still a very unpredictable force. Just in case, stay tuned for survival tips and necessary gear in case of a Yellowstone Eruption.

For more information, check out Questions About Future Volcanic Activity at Yellowstone.

Sources: National Geographic, Daily Sundial

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Yellowstone Eruption

A supervolcano is a volcano that erupts more than 240 cubic miles of lava and has the capability to destroy up to a billion lives. This is not a volcano that will disrupt the lives of people in surrounding cities, but a volcano that will disrupt the lives of people on multiple continents. This is not a volcano that will interrupt travel with a large ash cloud, this is a volcano that will make day-to-day life so difficult a vacation is not even an option. Most importantly, this is not a hypothetical volcano out in the middle of the ocean somewhere; this is a very real volcano underneath Yellowstone National Park.

The Yellowstone supervolcano is the largest known on the planet, and the magma chamber spans underneath the entire 37 by 25 mile park. Pressure from this chamber is released through earthquakes, smaller volcanoes, and geysers to keep the magma levels in check, but if there is not enough ventilation a massive eruption can occur.

First, a series of large earthquakes would break out around the Yellowstone area. One earthquake would finally shift the ground enough to create a vent from the magma chamber to the surface and would unleash all the pressure that had been building for hundreds of thousands of years. Magma would explode into the atmosphere with a force equal to 1000 Hiroshima atomic bombs every second. Within minutes, thousands in the surrounding area would be dead from the falling ash and the lava would destroy everything within miles of the eruption. The ash would coat most of the United States killing crops and livestock, almost instantly obliterating the entire nation’s food source.

After the destruction from the initial explosion, the ash cloud would coat the sky and block out the sun all over the world. Temperatures would drop a drastic 20 degrees or more globally and the earth would be cast in the equivalent of a nuclear winter for decades. Any rain that fell would be black with the poison and acid flung into the atmosphere and man would be pushed to the edge of extinction.

So What Are The Chances of an eruption of this magnitude happening? Could you Survive the Volcano? Stay tuned to find out! Don’t forget to check out the Top 5 Ways Our World Could Actually End.

Sources:,, BBC

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Interview with Volcanologist Dr.Erik Klemetti

Dr. Erik Klemetti is an assistant professor of Geosciences at Denison University. He earned his Ph.D. in Geology from Oregon State University after finishing his undergraduate work in Geosciences and History from Williams College. He is fascinated with the timescales of magmatic processes and using them to get a better understanding of hazards posed by active volcanoes.

1.       Do you believe we are in danger of Yellowstone erupting in our lifetime?

Could Yellowstone erupt in our lifetime? Sure, but the chances are low and even if it did erupt, it is far more likely to be a small eruption rather than a so-called “supervolcanic” eruption. The Yellowstone caldera has had quite a few eruptions since the last cataclysmic eruption over ~640,000 years ago, but all of those were much smaller eruptions that produced lava flows and minor ash.

2.       Are there any prevention methods or evacuation plans in place?

I’m sure that the government has plans for what to do in the case of renewed activity at Yellowstone. With the much higher likelihood of a smaller eruption from the caldera than a large eruption, then planning for a regional evacuations around the park would be relatively straightforward.

3.       Is there any wildlife in that area that may go extinct should the volcano erupt?

Nope. Most animals have a range much wider than the kill zone for even a large eruption. However, in the very low chance of a large eruption, we might see global climate changes due to the ash and volcanic gases introduced into the atmosphere that could have a much wider ranging effect of plants and animals.

4.       Would an eruption cause any other natural disasters?

A large eruption would likely produce earthquakes felt near the caldera and possibly global effects of weather from the ash/gases, but not much beyond that.

5.       Are you smarter than the average bear?

I would like to think so, but I’ve seen some crafty bears.

To read more about Erik or to catch up on his latest projects, please visit his blog, Eruptions.

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