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How Close is the Yellowstone SuperVolcano to Blowing its Lid? (And How Would it Impact Us?)

Every year, millions of visitors are drawn to Yellowstone National Park to take in its breathtaking scenery and surreal hot springs, steam vents and geysers. What many may not know, however, is that the very activity that makes Yellowstone so magnificent is caused by an active, underground volcano system -- one of the world's largest.

Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park's 10,000 thermal features are caused by the supervolcano below its surface.

In some areas, partially molten rock is gurgling just a few miles below the surface, contributing to Yellowstone's characteristic steam vents, mud pots and over 10,000 thermal features. Meanwhile, every year there are active ground deformations and anywhere from 1,000 to 3,000 earthquakes of varying magnitudes occur at the park, making it quite obvious that geologic forces are still very active.

"Yellowstone is much larger than any other volcanic feature in North America," says geophysicist Bob Smith of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory and the University of Utah in a Discovery Channel report. "People don't realize this."

The Yellowstone SuperVolcano: Could it Erupt?

According to the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory (YVO), which was formed by the U.S. Geological Survey, the University of Utah, and Yellowstone National Park to continually monitor volcanic activity in the park, there have been three extremely large explosive eruptions at Yellowstone in the past 2.1 million years.

During these eruptions, the most recent of which occurred about 640,000 years ago, a layer of ash covered half of North America and chemicals and ash were blown around the planet, causing a notable decrease in temperatures worldwide.

So far, Yellowstone has had gigantic eruptions about once every 600,000 to 800,000 years. Since it's been about 640,000 years since the last one, this theoretically means there could be a catastrophic eruption at any time.

As it stands, scientists from YVO monitoring Yellowstone say it's extremely unlikely that a huge eruption will occur in this century or even millennium, however, they expect that Yellowstone will erupt at some point in the future.

What if Yellowstone Did Erupt?

The most likely type of eruption that will occur at Yellowstone is a hydrothermal eruption of steam or hot water that could blast out shallow craters.

volcanic crater beneath Yellowstone

The volcanic crater beneath Yellowstone, called a "caldera," is about 1,500 square miles.

At the next level would be a smaller volcanic eruption that could produce significant volumes of volcanic ash, pumice and lava, similar in magnitude to the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens or the, much larger, 1991 Mount Pinatubo eruption.

In the worst-case scenario would be an eruption similar to those that occurred 2.1 million, 1.3 million, and 640,000 years ago. An eruption of this magnitude could be devastating not just to North America but to the entire world.

"An area the size of North America can be devastated, and pronounced deterioration of global climate would be expected for a few years following the eruption," said Stephen Self of Open University in the United Kingdom about super-eruptions. "They could result in the devastation of world agriculture, severe disruption of food supplies, and mass starvation. These effects could be sufficiently severe to threaten the fabric of civilization."

The most recent super-eruption actually occurred about 74,000 years ago in what is now Sumatra. The volcano, Toba, erupted with 10,000 times the force of Mount St. Helens and spewed out enough ash to darken the sky worldwide and, according to scientists, nearly drove humans to extinction.

And while YVO researchers stress that this type of super-eruption isn't coming any time soon, the volcanic activity going on beneath Yellowstone is too large to ignore. As YVO monitors the park, they say they'd be able to detect a catastrophic eruption anywhere from weeks to years before it occurred, and would be tipped off by strong earthquake swarms, rapid ground deformation and other intense precursory activity.

Should an eruption be detected, they say, nothing much could be done.

"The temperatures, pressures, physical characteristics of partially molten rock, and the immensity of the magma chamber are beyond man's ability to influence -- much less control," says YVO.

Meanwhile, British researchers are suggesting that emergency management agencies give some thought to how to handle such an emergency.

"We don't want to be sensationalist about this, but it's going to happen. We just can't say exactly when," Self said.

Recommended Reading

The 5 Great National Parks Almost No One Knows About

'Killer Asteroid Slams into the Earth!' How Likely is This Headline?


Yellowstone Volcano Observatory

Discovery Channel

BBC News

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