Concerned about the devastating effects a super-volcano eruption could have on the planet as a whole a group of scientists from around the world have got together to use newly discovered techniques to predict when volcanoes will erupt and this will hopefully lead to them being able to give adequate warning of the next super-volcanic eruption.
Yellowstone Super-volcano last blew its top 640,000 years ago and there were two other massive explosions from the volcano, one 1.3 million years ago and the other 2.1 million years ago. We know it will happen again but we have no idea when that might be, that though could be set to change.
Scientific investigation of the layers of ash deposited by past eruptions it’s known that a minimum of 240 cubic miles, 1000 cubic kilometres of lava was ejected that gave rise to an ash blanket that covered the whole of North America in ash.
The depth of the ash in future eruptions would depend on the size of the explosion and where you are in relation to it as well as the wind patterns at the time of the eruption. Scientists estimate that the depth of ash several hundred miles from the explosion will be around 4 inches.
Volcanic ash has a high silica content and its fine texture is misleading, it contains microscopic crystals that are essentially shards of glass. Breathing in volcanic ash is incredibly dangerous once in the lungs it mixes with the moisture within your lungs and turns into a thick, semi-hard concrete like substance. Hundreds of thousands of people around the world have life-long respiratory problems from breathing in volcanic ash laden air and many of them will die earlier than they otherwise would have because of this.
The ash gets everywhere, it coats vegetation, smothering plants by stopping light getting to them. It clogs and contaminates waterways, due to the chemical compounds that leech into the water from the ash.
The group have named the project The Deep Earth Carbon Degassing (DECADE) initiative, and they will monitor volcanoes around the globe in order to help them predict when eruptions will occur.
With past reports giving a 10% chance that Yellowstone will blow within the next 80 years finding out with as much notice as possible when that will occur sounds like an excellent idea.
Automated monitoring stations will be set up to monitor and measure carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide and water vapour emitted by volcanoes.
In the hours before an eruption all of these gases changes in the levels emitted and these changes are consistent enough to allow the scientists to predict an eruption is imminent.
Lead scientist Maarten de Moor. said:
“We’re getting more and more confident that changes in the carbon to sulphur ratio precede eruptions potentially, we can now see an eruption coming just by looking at gas emissions. What is truly fascinating is how dynamic these volcanoes are in their degassing and eruptive behaviour. To understand the big picture of Earth degassing, we also need to understand the processes driving temporal variations in volcanic emissions.” (source)
The researchers are hoping that by using DECADE alongside satellite technology that monitors the ground around volcanoes for major uprising or deformation they will be able to give more and more warnings that a volcano is about to erupt.
Yellowstone National Park is one of the most seismically active areas in the United States. 1,000 to 3,000 earthquakes occur within the Yellowstone volcano region each year, although most are too small to be felt.
Scientists knew that the Yellowstone caldera was big, some even called it huge, but until recently they had no idea just how huge. The magma chamber is 50 miles long and 12 miles wide capable of holding 4,000 cubic kilometres of molten rock…that’s not huge, that’s truly massive.
The worst earthquake on record to hit the Yellowstone area occurred on August 17, 1959. The Hebgen Lake Earthquake measured 7.5 on the Richter scale. 28 people lost their lives and it caused millions off dollars of damage. At the time, it was the third-largest earthquake recorded in the lower 48 states.
A good example of this is the 1816 explosion of the Mount Tambora super-volcano in Indonesia.
“The summer of 1816 was not like any summer people could remember. Snow fell in New England. Gloomy, cold rains fell throughout Europe. It was cold and stormy and dark – not at all like typical summer weather. Consequently, 1816 became known in Europe and North America as “The Year Without a Summer.” (Source)
The rumbling deep within Mount Tambora started on April 5th 1815, a full four months before the actual explosion. It was the largest explosion in recorded history. So much ejecta was thrown up that the sun was completely blotted out across Indonesia. Enough ash fell that buildings collapsed under the weight and the ash floated on the ocean, building into ‘ashbergs’ several feet in diameter and height, that ships had to push through to continue on their way.
70,000 people are estimated to have lost their lives due to the explosion and initial ash fall in Indonesia. Hundreds of thousands more are estimated to have died around the globe due to indirect effects such as famine and disease.
Over several months the particulate matter blew across the world and within six months global temperatures had dropped by three degrees Celsius. Crops were affected, people thought the end of the world had come, and 1816 became known as the year without a summer.
Tambora produced 50 cubic kilometres of magma. Yellowstone can hold 4,000 cubic kilometres of magma and scientists estimate it is 10% full at this point.
According to scientists there are already 400 cubic km of magma in the Yellowstone magma chamber…EIGHT times more than Tambora.
California is waiting for ‘The Big one’ and it’s overdue. Should the Cascadia fault, the San Andreas fault, the Hayward fault or any other fault trigger a late enough earthquake there’s a considerable chance that it will trigger a swarm of minor earthquakes at Yellowstone, but what if one of those quakes triggers something a little larger and that in turn causes an uptick in the hydrothermal system at Yellowstone? What would a major quake do to the magma chamber? would rocks crack and fall into the chamber, melting and increasing the magma levels in the chamber?
Would cracks in the hydrothermal system tubes cause steam to get into the chamber creating a 50 mile by 12 mile pressure cooker that has no safety valve except to explode upwards and outwards to relieve the pressure?
A large earthquake is in itself a major disaster, add that to an explosion of a super-volcano and you have a cataclysm of biblical proportions that will affect every living thing on the planet in one way or another.