Earlier this month, stories about new research on the Yellowstone supervolcano flooded the internet. First reported by Shannon Hall of the New York Times, other outlets soon followed with coverage. But many of the subsequent stories misrepresented the research in headlines that suggested the volcano could soon blow, destroying all life on Earth.
As others were quick to point out, the research, which was presented at a volcanology conference, suggested that the volcano can awaken from dormancy much quicker (on geologic timescales) than previously believed—not that it was ready to blow. And those eruptions aren’t always planet killers, Hall tells Joseph Frankel at Newsweek.
This all raises an important point: there’s a supervolcano sitting in middle of the United States. What do we know about the massive lava bomb, and should we be worried? Here are a few things to keep in mind about the Yellowstone Volcano.
Researchers Don’t Believe It Will Blow Anytime Soon
The Yellowstone volcano has had three “supereruptions” in the last 2 million years, one 2 million years ago, another 1.2 million years ago and a third around 630,000 years ago. While it's often stated that Yellowstone is “due” for another major eruption since they seem to happen every 600,000 years or so, Hall tells Frankel that volcanic eruptions a don’t recur at predetermined intervals.
In fact, some researchers believe that Yellowstone isn’t likely to erupt again within our lifetimes, estimating the next eruption will come come some 1 or 2 million years in the future. The volcano is powered by complex interactions between the movements of tectonic plates and magma “hot spots” welling up from the Earth’s mantle, making eruptions difficult to predict.
In a 2014 interview with the National Science Foundation, geologist Ilya Bindeman from the University of Oregon says the past three major eruptions exhausted the volcano, placing Yellowstone in the midst of what is likely a quiet period in which the risk of eruption is small. “We know the behavior of the past and we know at what comparative stage Yellowstone is right now,” Bindeman says. “We think Yellowstone is currently on a third cycle, and it's a dying cycle."
Not Every Eruption Is a Supereruption
According to the National Park Service, a supervolcano eruption is defined as one that produces 240 cubic miles of magma. Two of Yellowstone’s last three major eruptions fit that criteria. Since that last big bang, the volcano has had a series of 23 eruptions, Arizona State University’s Christy Till, who was part of the most recent Yellowstone research, tells Frankel. The Park Service reports that an eruption occurred 174,000 years ago, creating the West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake, and the last lava flow happened 70,000 years ago. That is to say, it’s not a civilization ending catastrophe every time the volcano erupts.
“Most eruptions at Yellowstone are lava flows […], they discharge [a] similar or comparable amount of magma without a super eruption,” Bindeman tells Snopes.com. “Since 630,000 years ago there have been many […] such eruptions. These eruptive products also have “short” diffusion profiles [similar to the ones from the explosive 630,000 year old event] in their crystals, but they erupted quietly.”
Yellowstone Is Not the Only Supervolcano on Earth
While Yellowstone doesn’t look like it will blow anytime soon, it’s only one of several supervolcanoes dotting the planet. This list includes, the Long Valley Caldera in California, the Toba in Indonesia, and Atana Ignimbrite of Chile.
One supervolcano to keep an eye on is the Campi Flegrei near Naples, Italy, which has been stirring since the 1960s. Some researchers believe that an eruption there 39,000 years ago led to a prolonged cold snap that finally did in the Neanderthals. But scientists say it's hard to know yet whether Flegrei is really waking up, or just snoring.
Eruptions Made Yellowstone What It Is
Yellowstone is a wonderful, beautiful place because of its volcanic eruptions. The Park's three major eruptions created three nested calderas, or sunken areas, that stretch miles across. Lava flows, rising magma domes and tectonic shifting have all sculpted the area’s unique and beautiful landscape. And most importantly the volcanic history powers the area’s system of geysers, thermal pool and other hydrothermal wonders, like Old Faithful and Grand Prismatic Spring.
There’s a Plan to Diffuse the Volcano—Sort Of
As Cox reports, some researchers believe supervolcanoes are a bigger threat to humanity than asteroid or comet strikes. To that end, a group of NASA scientists came up with a theoretical solution for calming down a supervolcano on the verge of eruption. The idea is to pull heat building up in the volcano's magma chamber by pumping water down a shaft at high pressure. That water would return to the surface at roughly 662 degrees Fahrenheit, cooling the volcano enough to stop an eruption and producing lots of geothermal energy as a benefit.
But as Eric Klemetti at Discover points out, right now the idea is more spit-balling than reality. Scientists don't currently have the ability to drill deep enough to reach the magma and move the amount of water needed—the volume of the Great Lakes—through the system to make any meaningful difference. In fact, he points out that adding water to the system could produce steam, making the eruption worse than it would have been.
Still, it’s nice to know that scientists are on the case—and we won't just have to rely on the powers of good ol' Superman.