Should humanity fear the eruption of a super volcano?

We have, since the dawn of the nuclear age, been faced with the possibility of nuclear Armageddon, but what if it was not nuclear weaponry that ended human existence; instead it was the eruption of a super volcano?

The intense news coverage and mass disruption following the Eyjafjallajokull volcano was in fact, a mere blip in the Earth’s natural processes. Rather, we should be far more worried if one of the forty so called ‘super volcanoes’ erupted. Some may disregard this as a mad conspiracy theory but if we to examine the facts behind this claim, we can (rather worryingly) see some legitimacy to this claim.

Yellowstone National Park is a well-known tourist attraction (between January and August 2007, 2,511,790 people visited the park) but it has a far darker past. Yellowstone is a site of a super volcano, which erupts approximately every 600,000 years. While, at first, this should not worry us, the last time this volcano erupted was 640,000 years ago. Now, simple mathematics will tell us that we are 40,000 years overdue and quite ominously, ‘Bison’ are being found dead around the volcano and the ground has been shaking, rising (three inches each year since 2004) and getting warmer while gas is being emitted. Logic and previous experience of smaller eruptions would tell us that a big eruption is imminent.

The next obvious question to ask is: how do we know it will be a ‘super eruption?’ If we look at the surface of Yellowstone National Park, we can see the Snake River Plain, which was created by a series of massive eruptions, and three massive Calderas. The Calderas are what worry us most. These are formed when an eruption is so massive that the magma chamber is emptied and the land collapses to fill this space. The three Calderas are: the Island Park Caldera (formed 2.1 million years ago), the Henry’s Fork Caldera (formed 1.3 million years ago) and the Yellowstone Caldera (formed 640,000 years ago). The largest eruption recorded, 2.1 million years ago, erupted 2,500 times as much ash as the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption.

The effect of an eruption on human life would be disastrous and it would effectively end life on Earth as we know it. When it does happen, those within the immediate vicinity (essentially Wyoming State and those that surround it) would either be incinerated or choke to death as fast moving lava-flows reaching temperatures of 5000C and thick ash smothers everything. Cities would be utterly destroyed and the countryside would turn to barren wastelands. It is estimated that two thirds of the USA would become uninhabitable due to the toxic gases, ash and lava flows. The rest of the world would not be exempt either. The sheer volume of ash that would be released into the atmosphere would drop temperatures by approximately 210C plunging the world into an ice age. Plant life would slowly die off and with it, so too would animals. Our sources of food would gradually decrease until eventually we all starve.

The only people to survive would be those deep underground and their only luxury would be tinned food but even in this instance this is unlikely. Further, we do not rely on the sun just for warmth. It also affects our mood and the likelihood of us committing suicide. It is not a coincidence that suicide rates go up in the winter in countries that have limited daylight. This would be exacerbated massively in that our only survivors would be locked under the earth with poor food and no sunlight.

So should we behave any differently? Whilst an eruption is expected in the not too distant future in geological terms, this could in reality, be thousands of years away. It is not necessary to start stockpiling tinned foods or build a nuclear bunker under your house but it does bring new prominence to the phrase: carpe diem.

Contributed by Hamish Brechin

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