Watching Yellowstone Supervolcano

Apocalyptic Yellowstone Supervolcano Now 5.5

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Watching Yellowstone Supervolcano you learn to know about the potentially world-ending Supervolcano hiding under Yellowstone, right? Well, scientists just discovered a second magma chamber containing an additional 46,000 cubic kilometers of molten rock. Did we mention it’s “overdue” for eruption?

Apparently not everyone is aware of the Yellowstone Supervolcano. That’s crazy because it a) has the potential to wipe out not only this country, but possibly human life on this planet and b) it’s super interesting.

Because the report announcing the discovery of the second magma chamber (more on that later) was just published yesterday, scientists haven’t yet had time to calculate its apocalyptic impacts. So, let’s look at what they thought it could do before.

The first time this volcano erupted, 2.1 million years ago, it was 25,000 time larger than the 1980 eruption of Mt. Saint Helen. In his book “Windows into the Earth”, geophysicist Bob Smith says, “Devastation would be complete and incomprehensible.” He goes on to explain that the eruption would be signaled by a swarm of earthquakes, followed by a massive blast that some estimates say would immediately kill 87,000 people. Large parts of Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Colorado and Utah would be wiped off the earth, while a 10-foot layer of ash would blanket everything within 1,000 miles.

That ash would be launched 20 miles up, into the jet stream, spreading it around the world. The immediate effect of that would be a cessation of all air travel, globally, but the long term effects of the ash are what’s potentially the extinction-level event.

Two-thirds of the US would be an ashen wasteland by this point, including pretty much all of our food production regions, but the Supervolcano’s ash also has the potential to create a “volcanic winter,” plummeting global temperatures by 21 degrees or more.

The resulting crop failures and subsequent starvation is what would do humanity in.  But hey, look at the bright side: global warming would be a thing of the past. The last time the Supervolcano erupted, 640,000 years ago, it spewed just 1,000 cubic kilometers of lava into the atmosphere; its tephra fell as far away as Louisiana.

Now, we know the two magma chambers under Yellowstone have a total volume of 56,000 cubic kilometers.

“You could have a much bigger volume erupt over a relatively short time scale,” says the report’s co-author, geophysicist Victor Tsai of the California Institute of Technology. This new, deeper chamber could “replenish” the shallower, upper chamber, “again and again.”

The Supervolcano has erupted 2.1 million, 1.2 million and 640,000 years ago. Averaging the time between those eruptions results in the conclusion that we are “overdue” for an eruption. However, the odds of that happening during our lifetimes are pegged at 10k thousand feet …

This illustration from the report shows the newly-discovered magma chamber in the lower crust.

“The Yellowstone magmatic system from the mantle plume to the upper crust” was published in Science Magazine yesterday. It reports the findings of scientists who studied seismic waves from earthquakes as they passed through the earth’s crust. These waves slow as they pass through liquid, allowing researchers to determine the size, shape and location of magma chambers, deep underground. Local earthquakes enable seismometers on the earths’s surface to track seismic waves through shallow portions of the crust, while distant quakes enable them to look deeper. This study is the first time the two types of data have been combined.

Previously, scientists studying the Supervolcano knew of a plume that carried magma up from the mantle to a point 60 kilometers below the earth’s surface. And, a 10,000 cubic kilometer magma chamber 10 kilometers down. This new chamber is described as a “missing link,” connecting the two. It spans from 20 to 50 kilometers below the surface and contains melted basalt tot the shallower chamber’s melted rhyolite. That confirms a long-held theory of how volcanoes work, with a deeper chamber of denser material feeding an upper chamber of lighter substance.

The findings will be a boon to scientists studying past eruptions of the Supervolcano, enabling them to more accurately model how magma moved during previous eruptions and increasing their understanding of all the apocalyptic stuff that may occur during the next. I, for one, look forward to learning how much more of the earth will be blanketed in ash or wiped out by the fiery explosion, should the Supervolcano ever again live up to its promise.

Do you have a cute and cuddly stuffed animal near you? If not, you might want to find one because what you’re about to read will scare you silly. And not the good kind of silly either. We’re talking The-End-Is-Coming sort of silly.

Two studies published in Nature Geosciences describe new findings on supervolcanoes, the most destructive natural event imaginable short of a catastrophic meteor impact. The biggest discovery is that these volcanoes can erupt spontaneously, without a trigger. Previously, it was thought that an outside force, like an earthquake, is what causes supervolcanoes to spew thousands of cubic kilometers of ash and lava into the atmosphere, potentially ushering in years of nuclear winter-like conditions. By comparison, Mount St. Helens only blasted one cubic kilometer of ash and lava into the air. A supervolcano eruption could cause the global temperature to drop by ten degrees for an entire decade.

So supervolcanoes are scary. Luckily, there are only a handful of these in the world, and eruptions only happen once over many thousands of years. Unluckily, the last eruption was 12,900 years ago. So we’re due for a big one—and since eruptions can occur with zero warning, it’s hard to say when and where the next one will occur. But, as Smithsonian Mag points out, the studies also found that supervolcanoes are even more rare than we thought. Rather than exploding when a magma chamber’s internal pressure climbs too high, as normal volcanos do, supervolcanoes explode for a different reason:

Every ten to 12 thousand years, there’s a volcano in the heart of Europe that goes boom. And not any boom, but a let’s-kill-everyone-with-billions-of-tonnes-of-magma boom that would cover everything in ash from England and Denmark to the north of Italy.

Now, the supervolcano that can destroy bad teeth, rude waiters, overpriced wine, olive oil, smelly camping sites, disco music, nudist beaches, pasta, David Hasselhoff and Oktoberfest is awakening

It’s been 12,900 years since the last eruption. The supervolcano is located under the Laacher See, a caldera lake in the Eifel mountain range, 15 miles from Koblenz and 30 miles from Bonn, the old capital of West Germany.

Some scientists are saying that the volcano can go now at any time, although there are no official alerts. They are just watching for now. Seismological activity started in 2010, with the latest movements happening last February, when a series of seven earthquakes ranging from 2.0 to 4.5 magnitude were registered in the area.

The lake has been bubbling since with with carbon dioxide gas that comes from the magma under the lake’s bed. Maybe this is what Europe needs to get out of the Euro crisis.

I wonder what would happen to the world’s weather if this, the deadly Mount Tambora and the Yellowstone hyper-mega-supervolcano explode at the same time. I can already imagine the 2012 doomsday idiots screaming “I told y*” before getting engulfed in flames.

Big pools of magma in a supervolcano heat up the surrounding rock, making it less likely to get overpressured and pop. Instead, supervolcanoes’ magma chambers steadily fill, the pool of magma growing larger and larger. Magma, however, is lighter than the surrounding rock, and this buoyancy puts pressure on the top of the magma chamber. When there’s enough magma in the chamber, the top of the chamber cracks open and the devastating flood of magma comes bursting out.

Scientists are hoping to use this new information to improve our chances of predicting the next eruption. The geologists used a customized x-ray room to simulate the conditions that give rise to supervolcanoes, using a so-called Paris-Edinburgh press containing two tungsten carbide anvils with specks of rocks sandwiched between them. The rocks were heated up with a resistive furnace and tested at various levels to determine how the resulting magma reacted to pressure.

These tests showed that pressure alone can be enough to drive magma to the surface of a supervolcano. A supervolcano, of course, is simply a mass of molten and partially molten magma under the Earth’s surface, eager to get out. “The driving force [of an eruption] is an additional pressure which is caused by the different densities of solid rock and liquid magma,” explains Wim Malfait, lead author on the study. “It is comparable to a football filled with air under water, which is forced upwards by the denser water around it.”

If and when—but really just when—the next supervolcano eruption happens, a catastrophic amount of damage will be done. The supervolcano resting dormant under Yellowstone National Park, for instance, could wipe out nearly half the country just with the initial explosion. The aftermath would look like a dark cross between The Road and the Book of Revelations. So until then, squeeze that stuffed animal tight. Squeeze it tight and sing pretty songs. It will all be over soon. [Science Daily; Smithsonian Mag]

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