Should I be scared of the Supervolcano?

Recently in the news, a number of articles and images have been circulating regarding Yellowstone National Park’s “supervolcano” Yellowstone Caldera, and its possible eruption. The volcano hasn’t erupted in quite a long time— the most recent being 664,000 years ago. To get a handle on how large the volcano is, according to Vox, it’s estimated that the largest explosion can launch more than 1,000 cubic kilometers of ash and debris material to the surrounding areas. For reference, Mount St. Helens, one of the largest volcanic eruptions in recent history, erupted 01.-1 cubic kilometers of material. The volcano consists of 5-mile-deep magma beneath the surface of the earth, and is responsible for the various hot springs and geysers that pepper the park. But don’t start prepping your disaster shelters just yet, scientists say that the probability of eruption is very low. Regardless, the idea that there’s a volcano in the US that could ravage some of the country is a source of fascination.

In 2014, a team of scientists published a paper in the journal G3- Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems, detailing what they believed would happen in the event of an eruption based on their research. The maps they formulated show the entire country, save for a few corners in any direction, blanketed in a layer of ash, rock and glass up to three feet deep—  an amount capable of killing people, plants, animals and even crushing buildings. While the areas that would receive the highest amounts of ash coverage would be greatly harmed, even areas with low amount of debris could experience various other problems as well. Large portions of middle america and the midwest are dedicated to agriculture, which feeds the entire country. If these lands were to be covered in ash, even just a small amount, crops would suffer, and food supplies could grow dim. In addition, roadways could be clogged, sewage tunnels could be blocked, humans could experience respiratory problems, and ash has the ability to short out transformers.

Beyond that, the sulfur aerosols that would be emitted into the atmosphere could have global implications as well. When Pinatubo erupted in 1991, it cooled the planet by around 1 degree Celsius. In 1815, when Tambora erupted, it is speculated that it may have caused famines worldwide. Both of these were relatively small events compared to what a super volcano would be capable of.

Luckily for us, geologists and scientists mostly agree that the risk of eruption is incredibly low—  and at the scale that would be considered a “supervolcano,” the chance is almost none. Looking at the statistics, for any given year the likelihood of an event is about 0.00014 percent, which is lower than the odds of getting hit by a civilization destroying asteroid. For more information on the volcano, visit the US Geological Survey’s FAQ at https://volcanoes.usgs.gov/volcanoes/yellowstone/yellowstone_sub_page_55.html.

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