How to Stop a Supervolcano
What is a supervolcano? Put simply, it’s a flaming death hole.
In 1816, red snow fell in Maryland. And brown snow. And blue snow.i Which was kind of weird.
Even weirder? It was May.
Parts of Pennsylvania were covered in half an inch of ice...in July.ii
1816 was known as “The Year Without a Summer.” And the phenomenon wasn’t limited to the U.S. In fact, the reason Americans were shivering in the middle of the year...had to do with something that happened half a world away.
The eruption of the volcano at Mount Tambora in Indonesia had released a massive cloud of ash and sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere. As a result, temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere plummeted. Crops failed and livestock died en masse.
Between the eruption itself, the ensuing tsunamis, and the resulting starvation, approximately 92,000 people died.iii It is widely regarded as the worst volcanic eruption in recorded history.
Here’s the good news: you didn’t have to live through it.
So savor that for a second, because here’s the bad news: there’s a volcano that could do far more damage...right here in the United States.
Volcanoes have played a dramatic role in human history.
In 79 AD, Mount Vesuvius destroyed Pompeii.
The eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 was so violent that the sound could be heard 3,000 miles away—the equivalent of hearing something happening in Dublin, Ireland...from Boston.
In 1980, Americans even got their own taste of volcanic destruction with the eruption of Mt. St. Helens.
But there’s one thing humans have never encountered, at least not since we’ve been keeping historical records: the eruption of a supervolcano.
What is a supervolcano?
Put simply, it’s a flaming death hole.
Put slightly less simply, it’s a volcano capable of eruptions on a scale we can barely imagine. A super-volcanic explosion would be at least 4,000 times as powerful as the eruption at Mt. St. Helens...and could wreak havoc across the entire planet.iv
There are at least a dozen supervolcanoes in the world, three of them in the United States: one in California, one in New Mexico, and one you’ve probably heard about in Yellowstone.
Yellowstone’s supervolcano has extraordinary destructive potential. It’s had at least three major eruptions throughout history, the biggest of which—2.1 million years ago—was so powerful that it left a hole in the ground larger than the state of Rhode Island.v
If it were to erupt at full force again it would bury everything within 40 miles in lava. But the real problem would be the cloud of ash that would spread across the country. One government volcanologist has compared the scenario to a hurricane...that would cover the entire continent.vi
Now, if ash doesn’t sound that scary, it’s because you’re not thinking of volcanic ash, which is made up of tiny bits of rocks and glass. When inhaled, it would carve up victims’ lungs and leave them coughing up blood, flooding our hospitals.
The weight of the ash would collapse roofs and could even take down transformers, threatening the country’s electrical grid.
It could poison water and soil, and keep airplanes out of the sky.
And most ominously, it could create a volcanic winter that would last up to a decade, affecting the food supply of the entire world.
So all in all: pretty bad.
But, while alarmist stories make it seem like doomsday is right around the corner, the truth is a lot more complicated.
Yellowstone is not, as it’s often said, ‘overdue’ for an eruption. Volcanoes don’t have predictable timetables, so a super-eruption is just as likely to happen 50,000 years from now as it is next week. And in any event, smaller, more manageable eruptions are much more likely than a catastrophic one. In fact, it’s possible that Yellowstone will never have another super-eruption.vii
OK? Feeling better? Yeah, don’t relax just yet.
Here’s the problem: even if Yellowstone is a dud, we still have all those other supervolcanoes to worry about. A 2017 study by Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute warned that “super-volcanoes are possibly the natural existential risk that poses the highest probability of extinction.” viii In fact, a supervolcano eruption is twice as likely as a severe asteroid strike of the earth.ix
So: is there anything we can do?
In 2015, A team of scientists at Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory asked and attempted to answer the question: Could we stop a super volcano from erupting?
To help explain the proposal they devised, they used a simple analogy. Imagine you’re filling a bathtub, but it has a leak in it. How long does it take for the bathtub to get full? The answer, of course, depends on the size of the leak.
Using that analogy, the scientists suggested that, using much of the same technology that’s applied to produce geothermal energy, we could release the heat trapped underground. By doing so, the volcano never reaches its breaking point. The bathtub never fills up.
Now, this plan has plenty of critics. For one thing, it would require disturbing the rock around the magma chamber of a supervolcano...which could have some risks. And even if it did work, the Caltech team estimated that the time it would take to completely drain the heat away...would be a little under 50,000 years.x
But, whether it’s this strategy or some alternative yet to be devised, an effort on that scale isn’t crazy when you think about the potential downside of doing nothing.
The future of civilization requires preparing for low-probability scenarios with potentially catastrophic consequences—whether they’re supervolcanoes, asteroid strikes, the accidental launch of a nuclear weapon, or global pandemics.
In the case of supervolcanoes it may require a bigger effort than any in the history of mankind.
To meet these challenges, governments, scientists, and everyday citizens have to think not just about short-term concerns but also problems that lie over the horizon.
And you know what? It’ll be worth it. Because, may we remind you: flaming death hole!
- The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850 — Book by Brian M. Fagan
- "History’s People: 1816 – The Year Without a Summer" — Chester County Historical Society
- “Which Volcanic Eruptions Were Deadliest?” — U.S. Geological Survey
- “What is a Supervolcano? What is a Supereruption?” — U.S. Geological Survey
- “Questions about Yellowstone Volcanic History” — U.S. Geological Survey
- End Times: A Brief Guide to the End of the World — Book by Brian Walsh
- “Is Yellowstone Overdue for an Eruption? When Will Yellowstone Erupt?” — U.S. Geological Survey
- “Existential Risk: Diplomacy and Governance” — Future of Humanity Institute – Oxford University
- “Defending Human Civilization from Supervolcanic Eruptions" — Caltech Jet Propulsion Laboratory
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- The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850
Book by Brian M. Fagan
- Chester County Historical Society
"History’s People: 1816 – The Year Without a Summer” (Rob Lukens)
- U.S. Geological Survey
“Which Volcanic Eruptions Were Deadliest?”
- U.S. Geological Survey
“What is a Supervolcano? What is a Supereruption?”
- U.S. Geological Survey
“Questions about Yellowstone Volcanic History”
- End Times: A Brief Guide to the End of the World
Book by Brian Walsh
- U.S. Geological Survey
“Is Yellowstone Overdue for an Eruption? When Will Yellowstone Erupt?”
- Future of Humanity Institute – Oxford University
“Existential Risk: Diplomacy and Governance”
- Caltech Jet Propulsion Laboratory
“Defending Human Civilization from Supervolcanic Eruptions” (Brian H. Wilcox, Karl L. Mitchell, Florian M. Schwandner, Rosaly M. Lopes)
Learn more with a sampling of expert analysis and opinion from a wide variety of perspectives.
- “Yellowstone’s Supervolcano Is a Hot Spot, but it May Be Calming Down” (New York Times)
- “The Rise of a Supervolcano” (Wired)
- “Everyone Chill, Yellowstone’s Supervolcano Won’t End Humanity” (VICE)
- “We’re Underestimating the Risk of Human Extinction” (The Atlantic)
- “How Close is Humanity to the Edge?” (The New Yorker)
- “Yellowstone Supervolcano Could Be an Energy Source, But Should It?” (National Geographic)
- End Times: A Brief Guide to the End of the World by Bryan Walsh
- The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
- The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity by Toby Ord