Jan 07 2016

When Will Yellowstone Blow?

yellowstone-echinus-geyser-550It can be difficult to know what the optimal attitude is to have toward rare or unlikely events that would be catastrophic. How much should we worry about a large asteroid striking the earth? It could happen any time, but statistically is unlikely anytime soon (although is almost inevitable over the long term, meaning millions of years).

There are other rare but devastating natural phenomena. Phil Plait wrote about all the things that can bring Death from the Skies, including asteroids but also gamma ray bursts and other astronomical phenomena.

Today, however, we’re talking about death from below, specifically volcanic eruptions, more specifically supervolcanoes, and even more specifically the Yellowstone supervolcano. Recent news reports are breathlessly stating that scientists warn Yellowstone could blow in the next 70 years. Well, not so fast.

Yellowstone is a supervolcano. Its caldera is 34-45 miles in diameter. Beneath this caldera there is a large shallow magma chamber. Researchers also recently discovered a second deeper and much larger magma chamber. Yellowstone last erupted 640,000 years ago, and prior to that 1.2 and 2.1 million years ago.

Based upon these dates alone one might conclude that the supervolcano is “due” to blow again, but that could mean anytime in the next several hundred thousand years.

Recent news is based on a report from the European Science Foundation. The news reports, however, tend to be confusing when discussing different levels of eruptions. They write:

If any of them or other massive volcanic peaks suffered a major eruption the team said millions of people would die and earth’s atmosphere would be poisoned with ash and other toxins “beyond the imagination of anything man’s activity and global warming could do over 1,000 years.

The chance of such as eruption happening at one of the major volcanoes within 80 years is put at five to ten per cent by the experts.

The “5-10%,” however, is for a VEI (Volcanic Eruption Index) 7 event. This is a major eruption, but not the largest eruption, like a full Yellowstone supervolcano eruption. Scientists feel the chance of a major yellowstone eruption in the 21st century is less than 0.1%. The ESF reports:

The more frequent VEI 7 eruptions also are associated with high risk. With at least seven VEI 7 events during the last 10,000 years, there is a 5–10% chance of a VEI 7 eruption in the 21st Century. The impacts on our modern society could result in a global disaster, and it is timely to take measures to reduce this risk.

The essence of the report is that if we calculate the risks and the costs of major eruptions, given current and growing world populations, they warrant specific measures. We can’t do anything to prevent an eruption (unlike an asteroid impact, which we can theoretically prevent). We can, however, provide an early warning system and put into place systems of response to minimize the impact of the disaster.

Aside from the immediate loss of life in the vicinity of the eruption, the ash poured into the atmosphere could change weather patterns, exacerbate breathing conditions, and disrupt crops leading to mass starvation.


The ESF report seems reasonable – major eruptions are inevitable and not unlikely over the next century. When they do occur they have the potential of causing a major worldwide disaster.

They strongly advocate for taking steps to mitigate the effect of these less common but still devastating events, which sounds reasonable.

Along those same lines I feel it is reasonable to track Earth-crossing asteroids and develop the technology to divert them away from impact. These are threats faced by humanity as a whole, the entire planet, and therefore are perfect projects for the the UN and international cooperation.

It is more difficult to decide, however, how much we should worry or plan for much less likely but more devastating events, like a full eruption of Yellowstone. This may not happen for 100,000 years, and any preparations we take today will probably not help much and will be progressively obsolete as our technology advances.

Of course, this will always be true – whatever steps we take today will be nothing compared to what we can do in 100, 1,000, or even 10,000 years. This will still be true 1,000 years from now. At any given point in history we might as well take what steps we can with our given technology.

At the very least we should task relevant scientists to determine what steps we could take and their likely effectiveness. Perhaps there are some simple steps we can take that would help the world recover from such an eventuality.

7 responses so far

7 thoughts on “When Will Yellowstone Blow?”

  1. dawso007 says:

    Agree with you about the technology problem. Estimates by volcanologists and geologists on the immediate damage from a full scale eruption suggest a number of problems that would make survival immediately problematic for a large area. The only response I have seen so far from a technological standpoint has been the building of underground bunkers with their own water, food, and air filtration supplies. I have not seen any guarantees about how to travel to that bunker when the fly ash is coming down and the air is unbreathable. At some point there may be technology available to build supervolcano proof homes to address this threat, but that requires a lot of forward thinking architects and builders.

    George Dawson

  2. Damlowet says:

    Interesting article Steve.

    I find it funny (but not surprising) that seemingly every time a plausible disaster scenario is suggested by ‘science’, the chain of reactions in the public takes place.
    First, the media machine takes hold and exaggerates one of the following: size, death toll, frequency, inevitability, and then the inability for us puny humans to possibly do anything about it. Its the grieving process fast forwarded so ‘people’ don’t have to feel guilty for too long about doing nothing.

    Secondly, the armchair self proclaimed experts parrot the distorted facts to counter when the science responds to the incorrect attitude held by the public by trying to correct the misinformation spread in the first stage. That seems to be when the cranks come out shouting conspiracy about all efforts to actually do something claiming its a waste of money, or has nefarious reasoning behind the spend.

    Thirdly, hype dies down, general public have moved on, but the mis-informed hypochondriac add another ‘science has failed’ argument to their cherry picked beliefs.

    IMHO, even though we don’t have the current tech to save our present way of human life, we should invest more time, energy and money into things that we can do, like the seed vault. Possibly starting to construct infrastructure underground for generation of electricity and fresh water.
    Focus on what we can rather than what we can’t.


  3. Michael5MacKay says:

    Coincidentally, my son and I just saw a traveling exhibition on Pompeii at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. I don’t know what VEI level it was, but it did a pretty effective job of taking out a couple of Roman cities.

    I learned a few things.

  4. Pete A says:

    “It can be difficult to know what the optimal attitude is to have toward rare or unlikely events that would be catastrophic.”

    May I suggest that an “optimal attitude” is most probably to avoid letting our impending extinction (both our personal and the long-term for our species) distract us while we are performing important tasks, such as: driving; preparing food hygienically; our work; and communicating with others!

  5. Marshall says:

    @Michael5MacKay: according to Wikipedia, Vesuvius was a VEI 5, meaning one of the “larger” VEI 8 Yellowstone eruptions would be on the order of ~1,000 times more powerful than Vesuvius.

  6. Damlowet says:

    @ Michael5MacKay, I caught the last half of a documentary about ‘Super volcanoes’ and found out according to this doco, there is a distinct possibility that the demise of the Neanderthal started around 29,000 years ago when the SV Campi Flegrei (which is literally less than 50km Vesuvius) erupted. The eruption spread ash to a meter deep 1000kms away in some parts of what now is Russia.


  7. Damlowet says:

    I found the doco:

    If you watch from around 1hr on, the doco goes into detail about the eruption. Although it seems to be overly dramatic, it seems plausible.


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