Yellowstone Supervolcano Won’t Erupt (Probably)

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Old Faithful geyser erupts in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, 2011. (Jim Urquhart/Reuters)

At the risk of tempting fate — or perhaps the Mountain Dew–fueled teenager running the reckless late-night Sim City play-through that 2020 occasionally seems to resemble — I bring some good news: The Yellowstone volcanic “hotspot” may be calming down. According to a study recently published in Geology, the currently benign forces beneath the earth responsible for “Old Faithful” and other features of one of America’s most famous national parks may remain benign for some time — even though they have been responsible for some of the largest eruptions in the planet’s history (and someday could be again). From a Geological Society of America press release:

In a study published in Geology, researchers have announced the discovery of two newly identified super-eruptions associated with the Yellowstone hotspot track, including what they believe was the volcanic province’s largest and most cataclysmic event. The results indicate the hotspot, which today fuels the famous geysers, mudpots, and fumaroles in Yellowstone National Park, may be waning in intensity. . . .

Both of the newly discovered super-eruptions occurred during the Miocene, the interval of geologic time spanning 23–5.3 million years ago. “These two new eruptions bring the total number of recorded Miocene super-eruptions at the Yellowstone–Snake River volcanic province to six,” says [volcanologist Thomas] Knott. This means that the recurrence rate of Yellowstone hotspot super-eruptions during the Miocene was, on average, once every 500,000 years.

By comparison, Knott says, two super-eruptions have — so far — taken place in what is now Yellowstone National Park during the past three million years. “It therefore seems that the Yellowstone hotspot has experienced a three-fold decrease in its capacity to produce super-eruption events,” says Knott. “This is a very significant decline.”

I have maintained a consistent fear of the Yellowstone supervolcano’s eruption since 2005, when I was scared into awareness by a grade-school classroom viewing of the Discovery Channel/BBC docudrama Supervolcano, a fictional depiction of the cataclysmic impact of such an eruption. I was briefly obsessed with it then. My fear has only receded into the background as everyday life forced me to think of other things, and as I realized and accepted that I simply would have no control over such an eventuality. So the most proactive thing to do would not be to worry but to remain vigilant and to prepare. And let’s be clear: It would be bad. Consider this description of what one of Yellowstone’s past eruptions was like:

“The Grey’s Landing eruption enamelled an area the size of New Jersey in searing-hot volcanic glass that instantly sterilized the land surface,” says Knott. Anything located within this region, he says, would have been buried and most likely vaporized during the eruption. “Particulates would have choked the stratosphere,” adds Knott, “raining fine ash over the entire United States and gradually encompassing the globe.”

And it is naive to believe that such an eruption would impact only the vicinity of Yellowstone. Volcanic ash would travel widely and thick across the United States and even the world, damaging farmland, smothering crops, polluting the air, and blocking out the sun. The largest volcanic eruption in recorded human history, that of Mount Tambora in Indonisa in 1815, affected the climate throughout the world, leading to a “Year Without a Summer” and widespread crop failures (but also the conception of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, so there’s that, at least). This is not something we want to experience. So we should be grateful we won’t.

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Um . . . we won’t, right? Well:

These findings, says Knott, have little bearing on assessing the risk of another super-eruption occurring today in Yellowstone. “We have demonstrated that the recurrence rate of Yellowstone super-eruptions appears to be once every 1.5 million years,” he says. “The last super-eruption there was 630,000 years ago, suggesting we may have up to 900,000 years before another eruption of this scale occurs.” But this estimate, Knott hastens to add, is far from exact, and he emphasizes that continuous monitoring in the region, which is being conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey, “is a must” and that warnings of any uptick in activity would be issued well in advance.


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Jack Butler is an associate editor at National Review Online.


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