I was sent an email today that got me to thinking about Yellowstone and the potential for the caldera to blow. I was sent an email today that got me to thinking about Yellowstone and the potential for the caldera to blow. I've read about Yellowstone on the web before, lots of hype and lots of facts. A lot remains unknown, which is part of what keeps Yellowstone near the top of the news. Since I live in Denver, Yellowstone is about 350-375 miles away. With a "kill radius" of between 300 and 600 miles that puts me in the danger zone if Yellowstone erupts.

I also watched the BBC/Discovery Channel docudrama "Supervolcano" which was shown in 2005 in the UK and the US. According to Jake Lowenstern, "scientist-in-charge" for the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory the BBC and Discovery Channel people did a good job, see below for a quote from Lowenstern available from http://www.agiweb.org/geotimes/june05/feature_supervolcano.html (emphasis added):

"In the end, the BBC Science team did an impressive job of addressing the sorts of scientific issues we would grapple with during the start of an eruption. ... Although we strongly would have preferred portrayal of the effects of a small eruption, their intent was always to provide a worst-case scenario, and the final product did that very well."

Here's the text of the news article I was sent:

European Space Agency Weighs in on Yellowstone Future

Earlier today the ESA (European Space Agency) who facilitates SOHO, the satellite which monitors the Sun among several other joint NASAventures in space exploration, issued their analysis of recent activityat Yellowstone supervolcano.

Satellite images acquired by ESA's ERS-2 revealed the recently discovered changes in Yellowstone's caldera are the result of molten rock movement 15 kilometers below the Earth's surface, according to a recent study published in Nature scientific journal.

Using Synthetic Aperture Radar Interferometry, a sophisticated version of 'spot the difference', involves mathematically combining different radar images, acquired from as near as possible to the same point in space at different times, to create digital elevation models and reveal otherwise undetectable changes occurring between image acquisitions.

Wayne Thatcher of USGS states: "We know now how mobile and restless the Yellowstone caldera actually is. Ground-based measurements can be more efficiently deployed because of our work. The research could not have been done without satellite radar data."

Background basics on Yellowstone
So with that my curiousity was once more peaked. I remembered some facts from previous reading on the Yellowstone caldera. The first eruption they can find record of, or at least the one that is usually picked as the first point, was 2 million years ago. Then there was another one 1.3 million years ago. The third, and last, that is usually mentioned was 630,000 years ago.

So it seems that approximately every 600,000 to 650,000 years Yellowstone erupts. These eruptions are not small. Each would have global consequences along with having a major impact on most of the US and a good chunk of Canada. In short, each of the last three times Yellowstone has blown its top it has impacted live in the US and the world in MAJOR ways. These three eruptions are part of a 17 million year history of eruptions over a "hotspot" (see http://volcanoes.usgs.gov/yvo/figures/fig1.html for more information).

Below is an image of this path (click on the image to go to a larger image):

During the eruption 2 million years ago ashfall stretched over most of the US. The eruption 630,000 years ago was even larger, covering most of the US. Most information puts a "kill radius" of 300 to 600 miles where life would eventually be choked out, this is in addition to the global effects an eruption would have. From http://volcanoes.usgs.gov/yvo/faqshistory.html#lasterupt (emphasis added): "During the three giant caldera-forming eruptions that occurred between 2.1 million and 640,000 years ago, tiny particles of volcanic debris (volcanic ash) covered much of the western half of North America, likely a third of a meter deep several hundred kilometers from Yellowstone and several centimeters thick farther away (Figure 3). Wind carried sulfur aerosol and the lightest ash particles around the planet and likely caused a notable decrease in temperatures around the globe."

Below is an image (Figure 3 from above) that shows the eruptions from 2 million and 630,000 years ago along with radius lines marked at 500 and 1000 miles (click on the image to go to a larger image):

Below is an image that shows a 600 mile radius (click on the image to go to a larger image):

Below is a map of the Yellowstone caldera (click on the image to go to a larger image):

Below is a map of the Yellowstone caldera seen from space (click on the image to go to a larger image):

What does this mean to me?
If you live within 600 miles of Yellowstone it means that when Yellowstone blows it's top again that you could be very dead. If you live between 300 and 600 miles of Yellowstone you may have time to escape to a safer area. Of course if the ash coverage is 1000 miles or more, as has happened in the past, then you may still not be safe. Part of the ash distribution depends on wind speed and direction. A strong wind will carry ash further.

If you live more than 600 miles (1000 kilometers) away you are probably safe when Yellowstone blows. You should have enough time to find out if you are safe and if not where to go to get into a safety zone.

From Armageddon Online http://www.armageddononline.org/volcano.php (emphasis added): "Magma would be flung more than 50 kilometres into the atmosphere. Within a thousand kilometres virtually all life would be killed by falling ash, lava flows and the sheer explosive force of the eruption. Volcanic ash would cover places thousands of miles away. One thousand cubic kilometres of lava would pour out of the volcano itself, enough to coat the whole of the USA with a layer a few inches thick. The explosion would have a force 1000-2500 times that of Mount St. Helens. It would be the loudest noise heard by man for more than 75,000 years, the time of the last super volcano eruption. Within minutes of the eruption tens of thousands could be dead.

If you have to travel and there is volcanic ash falling keep in mind that inhaling volcanic ash is like breathing in glass... it will cut your lungs to shreds. You will need to have some way to filter the volcanic ash. You will also need to make sure that your vehicle does not overheat due to volcanic ash clogging the air filter and the radiator. To help extend the life of your air fiter you can cover the air intake with pantyhose and change them as frequently as necessary. You can put cardboard over the radiator and brush it off regularely.

So when will it erupt? - Don't Panic Yet
Although we are within the historical eruption frequency for Yellowstone, it could erupt tomorrow or it could erupt in 20,000 years. It may come to pass that Yellowstone will NEVER erupt again. In addition to the big eruptions that everyone likes to refer to, there have been many smaller localized eruptions that were very small. The next eruption of Yellowstone could be anything from a few hundred yards of lava flow, such as is seen in Hawaii commonly, to a small Mt. St. Helens eruption that covers only a few miles... or it could be a super eruption.

From http://volcanoes.usgs.gov/yvo/faqshistory.html#lasterupt (emphasis added):

"Since the most recent giant caldera-forming eruption, 640,000 years ago, approximately 80 relatively nonexplosive eruptions have occurred. Of these eruptions, at least 27 were rhyolite lava flows in the caldera, 13 were rhyolite lava flows outside the caldera and 40 were basalt vents outside the caldera. Some of the eruptions were approximately the size of the devastating 1991 Pinatubo eruption in the Philippines, and several were much larger. The most recent volcanic eruption at Yellowstone, a lava flow on the Pitchstone Plateau, occurred 70,000 years ago."

What about global effects?
A small Mt. St. Hellens sized eruption would cause some loss of sunlight, some ash to fall in a fairly large percentage of the world, and a slight cooling of the planet. A massive eruption such as the one 630,000 or 2 million years ago will cause a much greater loss of sunlight, will cause more ash to fall over the entire world, and will cause a "nuclear winter". If there was enough ash in the atmosphere for a long enough period we could very well see an iceage.

If Yellowstone has another super eruption then life, on this planet, as we know it will change very drastically! There won't be a whole lot you can do about it.

From Armageddon Online http://www.armageddononline.org/volcano.php (emphasis added): "The long-term effects would be even more devastating. The thousands of cubic kilometres of ash that would shoot into the atmosphere could block out light from the sun, making global temperatures fall dramatically. This is called a nuclear winter. As during the Sumatra eruption a large percentage of the world's plant life would be killed by the ash and severe drop in temperature. Effects world wide would cause massive food shortages. If the temperatures decline by the 21 degrees they did after the Sumatra eruption the Yellowstone super volcano eruption could truly be an extinction level event.

Humans could be pushed to the edge of extinction.
Anthropologists suggest it won't be the first time."

So what can I do about it?
Well, you should take standard precautions and stock food, water and supplies just as you would for a hurricane or some other natural disaster. You may want have at least a year (more is always better) of food stored. If you are really worried about it you can make sure you live outside of the danger zones (upto 600 and upto 1000 miles away) or have a place you can go that is outside of the danger zones. You'll also want to have enough equipment and supplies to start to grow and raise your own food.

Other things you should make sure you have is lots of air filters and pantyhose for your BOV, as well as some sort of protective suits and dust masks for you and your family.

You should also learn more by going to the links below to learn as much as you can about Yellowstone and other supervolcanoes, and keep up-to-date with the latest information on earthquakes and other geologic changes to Yellowstone.

From Armageddon Online http://www.armageddononline.org/volcano.php (emphasis added): "But well before such a calamity, warning flags will likely show up on the computers of geologists around the world who monitor an increasingly useful stream of satellite data.

Yellowstone Volcano Observatory: http://volcanoes.usgs.gov/yvo/

Geotimes June 2005 - Truth, fiction and everything in between at Yellowstone: http://www.agiweb.org/geotimes/june05/feature_supervolcano.html

Exodus 2006 - Yellowstone: http://exodus2006.com/supervol.html

BBC/Discovery Channel "Supervolcano" docudrama: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sn/tvradio/programmes/supervolcano/

USGS Yellowstone info: http://vulcan.wr.usgs.gov/Volcanoes/Yellowstone/framework.html

USGS - Steam Explosions, Earthquakes, and Volcanic Eruptions?What?s in Yellowstone?s Future?: http://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/2005/3024/

Armageddon Online - The Yellowstone Caldera Super Volcano: http://www.armageddononline.org/yellowstone_caldera.php

Armageddon Online - What is a Super Volcano? (uses Yellowstone as an example): http://www.armageddononline.org/volcano.php

If you have know of any other good sites contact me with them and I will add them here and/or on the web page as appropriate