Wildfires raging across California and much of the western part of the United States. Record high temperatures on the Central Coast in late October. A possible La Nina threatening the start of another drought.
Think we have enough to worry about? Hold that thought.
A research team from Arizona State University has been analyzing fossilized ash from a volcanic formation beneath Yellowstone National Park, and has reached an alarming conclusion — a supervolcano could blow at any time.
We’ll be up front about this, we were not aware there was such a thing as a supervolcano. Until now. And as it turns out, the big one beneath Yellowstone is only one of about 20 such monsters just sitting there, waiting.
The waiting period could be extensive. Scientists expect a supervolcano eruption once every 100,000 years or so. The last time Yellowstone had a super eruption was more than 630,000 years ago, so from a gambler’s perspective, betting on an eruption sooner rather than later would be a smart bet.
The ASU team’s study has produced this prediction — if the Yellowstone supervolcano blows, it could spew out more than 1,000 cubic kilometers of rock and ash, or about 250 cubic miles of debris.
To put those numbers in perspective, such an eruption would be 2,500 times more powerful than the Mount St. Helens eruption, which occurred May 18, 1980, in the state of Washington, killing 57 people.
We can remember, vividly, video of the Mount St. Helens event, and still have nightmares about it.
A Yellowstone volcano blowout could create an ash cloud 500 miles wide and, depending on wind conditions, could cover most of the western states.
Here’s more perspective — a Yellowstone event would be at least three times more comprehensive than a similar supervolcano event 39,000 years ago in what is now Italy, and its cloud is credited with being a major factor in the extinction of Neanderthals.
Do we have your attention yet? If not, consider this — a Yellowstone supervolcano eruption could plunge the entire planet into a volcanic winter, which is not unlike a nuclear winter. Crops could not be grown, and humans would need to find refuge either underground or on a distant planet.
Are you shaking in your Uggs? OK, there are some caveats.
First, the odds of such an eruption in any given year are about 730,000-to-one against, which is only slightly worse than your odds of being struck by lightning. Realists understand, however, that people are struck and killed by lightning with alarming frequency, so the eruption odds may not be all that comforting.
Another out is that NASA has a proposal for avoiding the worst of the disaster. It involves drilling six miles down into the volcano’s core in order to release some of its heat and energy, relieving the pressure so to speak.
The hitch is that would cost several billion dollars. The upside is the released heat could be harnessed to provide geothermal energy. We’re always writing about alternative sources of energy, and supervolcanos could be part of such a scheme.
Meanwhile, we hope we didn’t spoil any family plans for visiting Yellowstone, most of which is in Wyoming but also spills over into Montana. The Old Faithful geyser is really something you need to see in person, as is the Grand Prismatic Spring. Unfortunately, those sights-to-be-seen also are indicators of the huge magma reservoir rumbling down below.
We’re heading into a cooler weekend, and finally some relief from the blistering heat. But remember, this is California, so you never really know.