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Everyone chill, Yellowstone’s “supervolcano” won't end humanity

by Alex Lubben
Oct 13 2017, 1:17pm

There’s a 45-mile-wide volcano under Yellowstone National Park — and it could blow sooner than anyone thought. That was the takeaway from an August study from Arizona State University of the famed “supervolcano” under Yellowstone, which boils the water that makes the geysers that attract millions of visitors each year.

By analyzing volcanic crystals in the areas from the last eruption 600,000 years ago, Arizona State researchers were able to conclude that the process that will one day trigger an eruption could be relatively quick in geologic time. They found that once the injection of magma into the volcanic reservoir occurs, an eruption will happen within decades — rather than thousands of years.

Coverage of the study concluded that this eruption, which would likely be 2,500 times larger than Mount St. Helens in 1980, would blanket the earth with ash, turn day to night, summer to winter, and maybe even wipe out humanity.

But experts consulted by VICE News — and the Arizona State researchers themselves — said the coverage of the study was overblown.

“There’s a fair bit of alarmist headlines spinning out of the New York Times piece on our work this week,” geologist Christy Till wrote on Facebook Friday. “FYI we’re NOT saying Yellowstone will erupt sooner than thought or cause more devastation. Repeat – Yellowstone is showing no irregular activity and no signs of erupting.”

And just because an eruption could happen quickly doesn’t mean it will. Indeed, while there is currently magma in the Yellowstone volcanic system, the system appears to be in equilibrium.

“You need extra heat, extra gasses, to make things blow,” Einat Lev, a volcanologist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, said. “If it’s just sitting there, it’s not likely to be doing anything anytime soon.”

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Alisha Clark, a postdoctoral scholar at the Northwestern University Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, thinks the results of the study are amazing. They show just how quickly these structures, that have been around for billions of years, can change. But the findings don’t indicate cause for immediate alarm, she said.

“The traditional view is that … we’re going to see things build up very slowly, and we’re going to have a lot of warning,” Clark said. “But we’re not going to know whether it will erupt in the next 20 years or next 2,000 years.”

To make matters worse, the New York Times, which originally covered the ASU study, made an error — which they later corrected.

“Additionally, the amount of material that could be expelled by the supervolcano was miscalculated,” the correction reads. “It is 2,500 times more than what erupted from Mount St. Helens in 1980, not 250,000.”

The Mount St. Helens eruption in 1980 shot volcanic ash 80,000 feet in the air, according the U.S. Geological Survey, and killed 57 people. So an eruption 2,500 times larger would still do significant damage — just not as much as 250,0000. A few reports, including one from CBS and a social media post from the Times’ Upshot blog, hadn’t corrected the error as of Friday.

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Anytime a new study comes out about the volcano under Yellowstone, people freak out, according to Lev. Even the word “supervolcano,” which various reports used to describe the Yellowstone volcano, is controversial in the geological community because it tends to reflect the upper range of how powerful a volcanic eruption could be, based on scientists’ best estimates.

“We just get frustrated when the term is abused in doomsday scenarios, like these are somehow especially monstrous systems,” Lev wrote in an email.

So what would this volcano erupting look like? In 1815, Mount Tambora in Indonesia, caused the biggest eruption in recorded history, which released 160 cubic kilometers of volcanic stuff — lava, gas, ash, and rock — into the atmosphere, according to Clark. As those particles obscured the sun, temperatures dropped, which messed up crop yields and lead to famines. Temperatures dropped globally by about a degree Fahrenheit; it snowed in Albany, New York, in June.

An eruption at Yellowstone would be at least 10 times bigger, according to Clark.

“It would probably change life as we know it,” Clark said. The ash might cover all of North America — and there’s evidence of volcanic material from the last eruption as far from Yellowstone as Mexico and the East Coast. Just as Tambora did, it would likely cause another volcanic winter.

Still, humanity would likely make it, both volcanologists agreed.