Yellowstone: A Ticking Time Bomb

Nature is a vast and inspiring phenomenon.  All rivers flow to the ocean, clusters of water droplets form clouds, and trees produce the oxygen we breathe through a process known as photosynthesis. There are countless mysteries to the planet we call home. One of the most beautiful yet hauntingly dangerous of these mysteries is the formation, function, and viable eruption of its volcanoes. Approximately 169 volcanoes reside in the United States alone. The largest and most threatening of these, the Yellowstone caldera, positioned in Yellowstone National Park within the states of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. The caldera, or large volcanic crater, considered most active and referred to as a supervolcano given the massive hydrothermal system which hides just beneath the surface. Geologist Professor, Attila Kilinc, states that although the processes leading to an eruption are well-known among volcanologists, they remain unable to predict a volcanic eruption. Yellowstone has erupted three times in the last 2.1 million years, the most recent eruption taking place over 600 thousand years ago. A modern-day eruption of Yellowstone would obliterate a unique ecosystem and catastrophically alter the world in which we live.

The environment in North America depends on the Yellowstone ecosystem, a life force to the smallest organisms and an immeasurable landscape. A visit to Yellowstone offers the opportunity to observe the beautiful scenery, wildlife in their natural habitat, and not to mention, the thousands of active geysers which lure tourists from around the world. The National Park Service claims that “Yellowstone National Park is as wondrous as it is complex. Established primarily to protect geothermal areas that contain about half the world’s active geysers, the park also forms the core of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.” Yellowstone is home to over 67 species of mammals, a large variety of fish, amphibians and reptiles, and an intersection of vegetation typical of the Rocky Mountains, the Great Plains, and the Intermountain region. In the last 25 years, Yellowstone National Park has averaged over 3 million visits each year, consistently reaching over 750 thousand in the month of July alone. Additionally, several scientists frequent the park to maximize research on the astonishingly extensive and inimitable ecosystem it provides. Given the massive amount of destruction an eruption of its magnitude would cause many tourists, nature enthusiasts, and scientists wonder when this ticking time bomb will run out of time.

Courtesy of Nina B / Shutterstock

Courtesy of Nina B / Shutterstock

To help address this looming fear, and by default, fueling our alarm, scientists with the United States Geological Survey performed a thorough study utilizing computer modeling to simulate a supereruption at Yellowstone volcano. The results, published in the journal Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems, indicate that life on this continent, and potentially throughout the world, would swiftly and dramatically change. Contrary to popular belief, lava flow is not the main threat from an eruption; rather ash, or tephra, takes the reigns. A BBC Science and Nature article further explains that “because supervolcanoes are highly explosive, much of the magma doesn’t get a chance to become lava. Instead it is blasted into countless airborne ash particles.” Keeping this fact in mind, the study emphasized the spread and effect of ash fall given an estimated eruption lasting one month.

Nearly impossible to hide from, the initial and lingering effects of ash remain the most concerning threat to our world. The hazardous ash fall would scatter nearly 240 miles into the atmosphere before dispersing into what is known as an “umbrella” cloud. The study claims that a supereruption could drive an umbrella cloud thousands of kilometers upwind, forcefully shutting down all electronic communication and air travel throughout the continent. Cities closest to the eruption would be covered in up to a meter of ash, wiping out all plant life, killing approximately 90 percent of the inhabitants and nearly all wildlife.

The ash dispersion depends on wind conditions, but within a mere three to four days, evidence of the eruption would be seen throughout the world. The sky would darken and appear red. It is estimated that small amounts of ash fall may spread as far as Europe. The climate would significantly change; causing drought and starvation. Water supplies and crops would be ruined, even in areas receiving merely a few millimeters of ash. People would develop respiratory illnesses and malnutrition due to the drop in temperature and decrease in rainfall. Findings from the Geological Survey state that “while there are no historical examples large enough to draw a comparison, the considerably smaller Tambora eruption of 1815 cooled the planet enough to produce the famed ‘year without a summer’ in 1816, during which snow fell in June in eastern North America and crop failures led to the worst famine of the 19th century.”

Courtesy of Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems

Courtesy of Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems

Scientists say that the reality of a supereruption would pale in comparison to some of the theories floating around. Published comments akin to this and media reports of animals fleeing the park because they “sense” an oncoming eruption do not lend comfort to the minds of informed citizens. However, scientists dedicate a lifetime studying the volcano’s activity and work to give the best prediction of its impending explosion. The Yellowstone Volcano Observatory was established in 2001 and consists of a conglomeration of eight organizations to provide continual and comprehensive studies and monitoring of the Yellowstone Plateau volcanic field. Recent reports of deformation in the area, including ground uplift, temperature changes, and seismic swarms have occurred. Between the years 1983-2006 there have been 70 small earthquake swarms and a 4.8 magnitude earthquake, the largest in 30 years, shook the ground in April of this year. This geological activity has raised concern, but the observing scientists affirm that they do not expect a supereruption to occur in the near future. They explain that ground movements, increased helium output, and other activities are normal and natural for a supervolcano with over 182 geysers and countless mud pools and fumaroles. During an interview with OregonLive, U.S. Geological Survey scientist Peter Cervelli reiterated this point when he said, “Sometimes the most important thing we do is tell people when the volcano is not erupting.”

The truth remains unwavering—nature is an unpredictable beast, beautiful and enjoyable on one hand, dangerously deadly on the other. Yellowstone visitors have witnessed its stunning grandeur and potential. They have experienced breathtaking views of jagged mountain peaks and close encounters with strong native bison, as well as the spectacular eruption of its largest geyser, Old Faithful. I urge everyone to enjoy it now, because while the work and dedication of scientists is slightly reassuring, when nature decides to blow the lid off the Yellowstone caldera, the beauty will vanish and nothing can save us from its powerful grasp.