Supervolcano discovery stirs apocalyptic fears

Source of destruction: A thermal spring on top of the Yellowstone Caldera.

The giant volcano at the centre of America’s Yellowstone National Park is even bigger than previously thought. Will this be the origin of our ultimate Armageddon?

Nestled amid majestic mountains in a wild corner of the US state of Wyoming lies a quiet, beautiful lake. Two million tourists flock to the area every year. But beneath the quiet surface of the lake, a monster is lurking with the potential to wreak devastation around the entire globe.

This monster is the Yellowstone Caldera, one of the most powerful volcanoes in the world. Scientists have long been aware of a huge pool of superheated magma lying beneath Yellowstone National Park. And predictions of the potential results of an eruption have ranged from the catastrophic to the literally apocalyptic.

Now geologists have made a chilling discovery: The Yellowstone Supervolcano is far bigger than previously thought. According to a new study, the cavern of liquid rock is 90 km long and 30 km wide, reaching depths of up to 15 km. Its total volume is greater than that of Europe’s largest lake.

No human has ever seen a super eruption at Yellowstone: the last one occurred 640,000 years ago. But someday the beast will roar again. And that day may even be overdue: some geologists have estimated that the volcano erupts roughly once every 600,000 years.

What will happen when it does? In the area immediately surrounding the volcano, almost all life would be instantly incinerated. Anything that survived would be engulfed in a rain of suffocating ash. But the ash clouds would spread far beyond Yellowstone: everything within a 500 mile radius would be covered in around 10 cm of debris, enough to destroy houses and kill anything it touched. The ash could reach as far as New York City, 3,000 km away.

So far geologists are agreed. But some believe that a super eruption could be far more destructive even than this. The ash, some suggest, would be dense enough to cool the planet by 20°C for a matter of years. Almost all life on Earth would become extinct – including humanity.

Apocalypse soon?

This is a pessimistic scenario which many experts dispute. But even the mere possibility of such an Armageddon is enough to fill some people with dejection and dread. Any moment, they say, the planet could turn on us and wipe us out of existence. Everything humanity has ever thought, built, achieved and lived for would be gone in an instant. If we are really so fragile and temporary, what’s the point in anything at all?

Lighten up, reply more carefree types. Of course humans won’t last forever – we are powerless in the face of a million elemental forces beyond our control. But that’s just all the more reason to enjoy life while it lasts.

You Decide

  1. Do you find apocalyptic scenarios like supervolcanoes scary? Why / why not?
  2. Will humans still exist in 500 years’ time?

Activities

  1. Write a short story imagining the eruption of a supervolcano.
  2. Draw a diagram explaining how a volcano works.

Some People Say...

“There’s no big apocalypse. Just an endless procession of little ones.’Neil Gaiman”

What do you think?

Q & A

How likely is this supervolcano to go off?
Not very. The latest research suggests that there is roughly a one in 10,000 chance of a supereruption at Yellowstone within your lifetime. But don’t be too disappointed: there are plenty of other things that could devastate the planet!
Like what?
There are some pretty fantastical scenarios involving black holes, asteroids or intergalactic conditions. Then there is natural disaster and disease – although most experts doubt whether these would be enough to destroy us completely. The greatest threat to human life is (of course) ourselves.
Go on…
We are already changing the planet’s climate in potentially catastrophic ways. But even if we survive global warming, futurists warn that scientific developments like nanotechnology or synthetic biology have enormous destructive potential for life on Earth.

Word Watch

Caldera
An area of collapsed ground caused by a volcanic eruption forming a feature that looks like a crater.
Magma
Liquid or partially liquid rock. Most rocks have a melting point of around 1,000°C. The magma beneath the Earth’s surface is created by the heat at the planet’s centre. It then rises to the surface because of convection. Some of it then erupts from volcanoes as lava.
National Park
Like many countries, the USA designates certain areas of particular natural beauty or interest as ‘national parks’. These are protected from human interferences such as construction work or exploitation of natural resources.
Supervolcano
A term which originated in the media but has now been widely adopted by scientists. The official (although rather loose) definition is a volcano which can produce an eruption of more than 1,000 cubic kilometres of ash and other deposits.

Subjects

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