Death from above…or below?

I have been following the geothermal activity at Yellowstone National Park with some interest. It is one of those problems that has experts talking – as although it is an old problem. It is one that is quite unique – and funnily enough, we have no modern data on globally catastrophic earthquakes and volcanoes.

Potentially it could wipe out life as we know it – but it could also just dribble. We sit on a World that is in constant danger from meteor showers, we are at the beck and call of global climate anomalies and every day is riddled with dangers that we just don’t know about (which is often good!).

There was an interesting fact on “QI” with Stephen Fry:-

What is most likely to kill you? Being struck by lightning, or being hit by a meteor?

Oddly enough the meteor was the answer, as when you work out the odds, being hit by lightning  is less likely to happen than a total global destroying meteor strike.

This is based on the fact that a catastrophic meteor collision would wipe out everyone,  where as a lightning strike may be a more frequent event – but it generally only hits a single person at a time. Total population wipe out by meteor is 1 in several million, where as one lightning strike hitting (not killing) someone is around 1 in half a million.

So you see, we live continuously, but obliviously in dangerous times, so why worry?

I digress again though, as the main purpose of this blog entry is to present this fascinating article by Richard Brill, who is a professor of science at Honolulu Community College. I found the article in the “Star Bulletin” online, and have been given kind permission by Richard to publish it on my blog – so many thanks to Richard Brill.


Quake swarm at Yellowstone may signal blast

POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Jan 04, 2009

More than 250 small earthquakes occurred in Yellowstone Park between Dec. 26 and Monday.

Scientists wonder if last month’s swarm of tremors, the most numerous and intense in this area in many years, might be a harbinger of a larger event.

Yellowstone National Park sits atop a supervolcano. The entire park is the depression of a caldera more than twice the size of Oahu that is the result of an unimaginably large eruption some 600,000 years ago.

By comparison, the caldera left by the explosion of Mount Saint Helens in 1980 is about the size of downtown Honolulu.

Saint Helens ejected 1.4 billion cubic years of ash that was detectable over an area of 22,000 square miles.

The last Yellowstone eruption, which was not even the largest in Yellowstone’s history, ejected 2,500 times the ash of the Saint Helens explosion.

Should we be alarmed by this uptick in activity?

Scientists studying Yellowstone from the U.S. Geological Survey, University of Utah and National Park Service at the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory say that recurrences of cataclysmic eruptions are not regular or predictable.

A supervolcano eruption at sometime in the future is inevitable with 100 percent probability. Eight supervolcano eruptions are known from the geologic record and there may be even more.

Although nothing, including the recent earthquake swarm, points conclusively to an imminent eruption, the researchers note that Yellowstone erupts about every 600,000 years.

Geologists continuously monitor the inflation and deflation of the Yellowstone Plateau, which indicates pressure changes in the magma chamber that lies as close as 5 miles below the surface in some places.

The elevation of the caldera is 35 inches higher than when measurement began in 1923, and it has been moving upward since mid-2004 at a rate of up to three inches a year – more than three times faster than has ever been measured previously.

An explosion matching the last Yellowstone eruption, which released 60 million times the energy of the Hiroshima bomb, would most certainly result in millions or even billions of deaths worldwide, both directly and indirectly.

One study predicts that half the U.S. could be covered in ash up to 3 feet deep. Earth could experience a “volcanic winter” with ash in the atmosphere keeping sunlight from reaching Earth’s surface for several years.

The largest supervolcano eruption within the last 25 million years occurred at Lake Toba in Sumatra 73,000 years ago. The energy released was at least 15 percent greater than Yellowstone and 20,000 times greater than the largest human-made nuclear explosion.

It plunged the Earth into a volcanic winter, and might have eradicated 60 percent of the human population, leaving as few as a thousand breeding pairs to propagate our species.

We cannot predict, prevent or prepare for such cataclysms, but we must be humbled by the knowledge that such events have been and will continue to be an important part of the history of our planet on geological time scales.

Without them we would most likely not be here at all, and they might someday render us extinct like the dinosaurs.

Richard Brill is a professor of science at Honolulu Community College. E-mail questions and comments to

More interesting articles can be found HERE – or just click on his photo.


One thing that never crossed my mind is the effect even a lesser eruption could have. I read somewhere that a smaller eruption could still send clouds of ash up into the local area, and as such it would fall and settle on reservoirs etc.

Local Nuclear power stations rely of this water to cool the reactors, and if it is that water is to badly contaminated, they will not be able to clean and filter it quick enough to supply the reactors. On top of this, there would not be time to shut down the reactors safely. As such there would be scattered nuclear disasters similar to Chernobyl.

This is all theory and off of the web mind you – but it does make you think about the potential knock on effects of a large eruption.

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