You’ve likely heard about the Yellowstone Supervolcano, and you’ve probably also heard that it’s “overdue” for an eruption. Sounds scary, right? Well, of course it sounds scary to an untrained ear.
If you don’t know the nature of a supervolcano, someone even mentioning the word eruption could cause fear. We should settle this right now. Should you really be worried about what happens if the Yellowstone Supervolcano erupts? Read on to explore the possibilities, and decide for yourself.
What Is the Yellowstone Supervolcano?
The Yellowstone Supervolcano is a massive volcano that sits underneath the western-central portion of Yellowstone National Park. A volcano is labeled a supervolcano if it has had a previous eruption of at least a magnitude eight on the Volcano Explosivity Index.
The Yellowstone Supervolcano has had three massive eruptions over time. One eruption occurred more than 2 million years ago, another 1.3 million years ago, and the most recent one happened around 640,000 years ago.
The volcano is still active, and the park has experienced dozens of small eruptions over the last 100 years. The magma flowing underneath areas of the park makes for some excellent visuals when the hot steam seeps from the ground. For this reason, Yellowstone has many geysers and hot springs.
Where Is the Yellowstone Supervolcano?
The Yellowstone Supervolcano’s huge caldera lies in northwestern Wyoming in the western-central portion of Yellowstone National Park. The park has three major calderas — or large craters left from past eruptions of the supervolcano. Scientists estimate that the largest measures 30 miles by 45 miles and forms the basin for Yellowstone Lake.
What Would Happen if the Yellowstone Volcano Erupted?
To understand the magnitude of a supervolcano, you have to understand what an eruption would look like if it were to happen. If the Yellowstone Supervolcano erupted, it could cause a cataclysmic event. It would affect the whole of North America and the entire world.
Some scientists estimate that so much ash would blow into the atmosphere that it would cause the world to go dark for quite some time. Anywhere within a 500-mile perimeter of Yellowstone would be a dead zone. Crops would fail to thrive on global proportions, and the world as we know it would begin to collapse.
Estimations also suggest that only 10% to 20% of all human life would survive. So it makes sense why the mention of the supervolcano erupting strikes fear into the hearts of many. But there’s also the reality that different types of eruptions could occur that would be less severe in nature.
A hydrothermal eruption would be much smaller than a caldera-forming one. Instead of blowing out molten rock, a hydrothermal eruption blows out steam and hot water from an underground reservoir. However, the likelihood that the volcano will erupt within any of our lifetimes is extremely small.
Let’s Put It in Perspective: Comparable Eruptions & Explosions
Yellowstone isn’t the only spot where you can find a supervolcano. Scientists say that there may be up to 10 supervolcanoes around the globe. Some of the most notable ones are the caldera in Long Valley in eastern California, Toba in Indonesia, and Taupo in New Zealand. Taupo had the most recent supervolcano eruption 27,000 years ago.
Pro Tip: Use these tips on How to Plan an Epic RV Trip to Yellowstone.
Is the Yellowstone Supervolcano Due to Erupt?
So word on the streets is that the Yellowstone Supervolcano is long overdue for a massive eruption. Let’s put some science behind that assumption to see if it makes any sense.
It’s important to note that scientists constantly watch the activity beneath the crust of Yellowstone National Park. The volcano has been in normal ranges for as long as they’ve monitored it. It shows no signs of an imminent eruption.
Additionally, no standard says that it ever will or ever has to have another super eruption. The myth that it is due is largely based on people doing the math and making estimations based on the dates of the last known eruptions. First, volcanoes don’t work on schedules. Secondly, even the math says we still have 100,000 more years until an eruption is “due.”
According to the United States Geological Survey, scientists don’t think a catastrophic eruption will occur, though it is possible. “The rhyolite magma chamber beneath Yellowstone is only 5-15% molten (the rest is solidified but still hot), so it is unclear if there is even enough magma beneath the caldera to feed an eruption.”
How Many Earthquakes Occur at Yellowstone?
Yellowstone National Park is one of the most seismically active areas in the nation. The volcano beneath has an extensive network of faults and surrounding tectonic features that cause many small earthquakes. The park experiences anywhere from 700 to 3,000 earthquakes yearly, but most of them are so small that no one even feels them.
Pro Tip: The Yellowstone Supervolcano isn’t the only thing worth exploring in the national park. Find out How to See Amazing Yellowstone Wildlife Year-Round.
How Do Scientists Monitor the Yellowstone Supervolcano?
Scientists use various tools and devices to gather intel from the Yellowstone Supervolcano. In 2015, they mapped the layout of the volcano’s underground magma reservoirs using data collected from the many earthquakes the area experiences yearly.
The earthquakes release seismic data, and the time it takes for the data to reach their recording equipment helps to give scientists an idea of what’s below the ground. For instance, seismic waves travel slower through a pool of magma than they would through an empty cavern.
Don’t Worry About the Yellowstone Supervolcano
In closing, there’s really no reason for people to worry about the Yellowstone Supervolcano erupting. Scientists constantly keep an eye on its activity, and it shows no signs of an imminent or looming eruption.
Remember, the magma chamber below the surface is only 5 to 15% molten. An imminent eruption would show a much higher percentage of molten lava below the surface.
The Yellowstone Supervolcano is cool to research, but, thankfully, we won’t see it do damage for several lifetimes. It makes you wonder, are any of the other supervolcanoes in the world more volatile?
Have you ever explored Yellowstone? Tell us about your experience in the comments!
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