What if the Yellowstone Supervolcano Erupts? Of all the threats facing humanity, naturaldisasters are some of the greatest and the most unpredictable.
Even with the early warning systems we havein place now, it’s possible for major cities to be destroyed by hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and volcanoes.
But one disaster has loomed particularly largelyin the media for decades, with repeated claims that we’re overdue for an event.
This is Unveiled, and today we’re answeringthe extraordinary question; what if the Yellowstone Supervolcano erupts? Are you a fiend for facts? Are you constantly curious? Then why not subscribe to Unveiled for moreclips like this one? And ring the bell for more fascinating content! In recent years it’s been a go-to topicwhen thinking about the apocalypse, but the supervolcano in Yellowstone National Parkis actually much less active than some corners of the media make it seem… with regular, sensationalist articles claiming that we’re due an eruption in Wyoming “any day now”.
The idea that an event is looming generallycomes from our knowledge of past supervolcanic eruptions in the region, of which there havebeen three: one 2.
1 million years ago, another 1.
3 million years ago, and the most recent640, 000 years ago.
Judging by the gaps between those three dates, some say we’re fast approaching (or perhaps are well inside) prime time for another eruption.
Nevertheless, basing all our fears on an averagegap between three numbers perhaps isn’t all that reliable.
The chances are that if Yellowstone does eruptagain, nobody on Earth today would be alive to see it.
And even if it did blow tomorrow, it’s alsopossible that a volcanic eruption that isn’t a super-eruption could occur.
Volcanoes don’t care all that much abouthow humans classify them, so say Yellowstone erupted but not to its full potential… theevent would still be destructive, but not any more apocalyptic than others like it.
But there is no avoiding the full, heightenedand devastating potential that Yellowstone does have.
Supervolcanoes are classified by the powerof their past eruptions.
So, for any volcano to count as “super”, it has to have had a “super-eruption” in its past, which is an eruption at “8or higher” on the scale we use to measure these disasters; the Volcanic ExplosivityIndex.
More specifically, though, a verified supervolcanohas to have an eruption deposit larger than 240 cubic miles.
And, because there’s no category higherthan “super”, this means that the deposit is effectively limitless – ranging from 240up to 1, 000 cubic miles or more.
The reason these eruptions are so large isthat they occur when vast, underground chambers fill with so much magma they burst.
In super-eruptions, the volume of magma isso great that an enormous depression forms in the ground when the chamber collapses;called a caldera.
Yellowstone National Park is situated insideof three volcanic calderas – from its three previous eruptions – so it really is a hotspot for this type of thing! Interestingly, though, Yellowstone’s previousexplosions aren’t thought to be the largest the world has ever seen, and any of our planet’sother supervolcanoes have the potential for huge destruction, too.
Yellowstone is simply the most notorious.
So, since we can’t stop it from one dayerupting, what exactly will happen if – or when – it does? For starters, the activity we most associatewith volcanoes – deadly, flowing lava – wouldn’t be the most pressing problem, unless you wereright at the centre.
Lava flows would be relatively small, slowand easily contained within the park, so you wouldn’t have to worry about getting coveredin molten rock.
In fact, if you were that close, you may havealready been killed by the initial blast of the eruption itself, which some speculatewould be as powerful as an 875, 000 megaton explosion going off in the heart of the Midwest.
Ash, on the other hand, is a totally differentstory.
The biggest danger Yellowstone poses is anenormous pyroclastic flow, which is a giant and fast-moving cloud of toxic gas and volcanicmatter.
It’s this that will start to spread ashacross the US, with the effects potentially worsened and quickened depending on wind speedat the time.
It’s commonly said that a supervolcaniceruption could produce enough ash to block out the sun, plunging us into a volcanic winterand another ice age.
And there is some evidence to this effect… It’s theorised that the eruption of LakeToba 74, 000 years ago, for example, may have itself triggered a millennia of global cooling;so something similar definitely isn’t out of the question for Yellowstone.
If the initially-less-concerning lava causesforest fires in the park, this would further increase the output of ash, so much so thatit’s thought that 500 square miles around the volcano itself would be quickly destroyed- choked and smothered by the cloud.
On a wider scale, it’s predicted that everysingle mainland US state as well as parts of southern Canada and northern Mexico wouldexperience at least some of the debris.
And even thousands of miles out, this ashis so much more than just an eyesore! It could render huge regions of North Americaunsuitable for farming and agriculture, sparking famines and polluting much of an entire continent’sworth of water supply.
And, since the United States is the world’slargest economy, it’s a disaster which would have ramifications for the entire world, evenplaces that wouldn’t see any of the volcanic ash and gas.
In terms of loss of life, a Yellowstone eruptionwould inevitably cause some extinctions; with endemic species in the surrounding area wipedout.
And, depending on exactly how far and howquickly the ash cloud travels, toxic debris could even reach the Earth’s oceans.
The human race as a whole would survive, butNorth America would suffer an untold list of casualties, as well as massive upheavaland displacement.
To a certain extent, though, there might beopportunity to plan for the disaster.
One positive note is that volcanoes don’tusually just erupt out of nowhere, especially not the most destructive ones.
There are plenty of signs that geologistslook for when they’re trying to predict whether one’s liable to blow; includingseismic disturbances, an increase in sulphur dioxide released from the ground, and evena change in the behaviour of nearby animals.
Molten rock flows below the surface are difficultto measure, but they’re also the best indicator of a magma chamber slowly filling up.
The problem here, though, is that notablechange can happen weeks or months before an eruption, but sometimes it’s years or evendecades.
Where volcanos are concerned there is alwaysa degree of uncertainty, but there is usually at least a little time to prepare.
As such, when the Yellowstone question trulybecomes a matter of “when?” and not “if?”, we should see widespread countermeasures putin place – to try to at least limit the damage.
Evacuation plans and drills within 500 milesof the park; huge stockpiles of food and water across the continent; emergency housing builtalong the coasts, as far away from the imminent eruption and ash cloud as possible – they’dall need to be considered.
Yellowstone would likely become a complexdiplomatic issue, too, as refugees from the worst-affected countries look to the internationalcommunity for help.
Meanwhile, some living further afield mightrely on underground bunkers to keep them safe… in which case the authorities would need toregister (and probably approve) all of them, so that they’d be able to relocate everyoneonce the worst of the disaster had passed.
Given enough time, we could even try to savethe endemic and local plants and wildlife at risk, putting animals in conservation-orientedzoos, and plants in structures like the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.
Quite what the world would look like oncethe dust had settled, though, is difficult to imagine.
Underground bunkers, temporary housing andevacuation drills could save us from the immediate effects, but the recovery period would belong and gruelling – with whole regions covered in layers of ash potentially meters thick(depending upon how close to the volcano you get).
The prospects of growing anything in the near-futurewould be low, but even in the far-future a super-eruption could change and disrupt soiltypes and farming practices for generations.
Volcanoes are a natural feature of the environment, however, and are actually integral to many ecosystems… so, should Yellowstone erupt, it really wouldn’t trigger total Armageddon.
The planet itself would definitely recoverfrom such an event – like it has recovered from all the super-eruptions of the past.
There’s no denying that a worst-case-scenario, full potential Yellowstone eruption would have a massive effect on life on Earth.
But it wouldn’t be the first time that humanityhad faced a disaster on this scale.
The Toba catastrophe 74, 000 years ago mayhave even been bigger than Yellowstone, and the human race survived that even withouta lot of the prior knowledge that we now have.
It would be devastating and dangerous; it’dcreate all new landscapes across an entire continent; it could trigger wide-reachingproblems with the global economy; and Yellowstone National Park itself would never look thesame again… but humanity has survived super-eruptions in its past, and more than likely would doonce more.
And that’s what would happen if the Yellowstonesupervolcano erupts.
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