One of the world's largest supervolcanoes, massive volcanoes that could erupt and alter life on Earth as it is currently known, exists under the plains, forests, and mountains of the western United States. It is the Yellowstone Supervolcano, so called because of the famous national park that rides the surface above it, and it houses deep magma pockets that have the potential to spew out rock, lava, and ash that could end civilization on the planet. And if that weren't enough to frighten any sane person, scientists have no way of knowing when the supervolcano -- or any of its less than ten brethren worldwide -- will erupt. They just know that it will...
Scientists from ETH Zurich in Switzerland announced this weekend, AFP reported (via Yahoo News) Jan. 5, that eruptions from supervolcanoes, which were thought to be triggered primarily by external factors (like earthquakes), were also subject to being triggered by the density of the molten magma. In short, by using x-rays to study the density of magma below supervolcanoes, researchers found that eruptions could be triggered spontaneously by internal pressure.
A separate team of British, Swiss, and French scientists built a computer model analyzing volcanic activity, basing the model on historic volcanic evidence and the presence of the mineral zircon.
According to AFP, researchers are hoping that the two studies will help provide indicators that can be used to predict supervolcano eruptions.
One such potential event could occur in the northwestern United States in an area called the Yellowstone Caldera, a supervolcano that encompasses 55 miles by 20 miles (90 by 30 kilometers) of subterranean territory. It is six miles (10 kilometers) deep. That measurement is two-and-a-half times larger than was once thought. New data allowed researchers to redefine the Yellowstone Supervolcano, and they now believe the magma chamber is as large as it was the last time it erupted, some 640,000 years ago.
That event deposited -- and the next has the potential to deposit -- at least 240 cubic miles (1000 cubic kilometers) of rock and ash across Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. Such a tremendous amount of displaced material would cause global climate changes, cooling the planet as much as a 18 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius) for as long as a decade.
Such a cooling of the world's temperatures would drastically disrupt growing seasons and food supplies, setting off a chain of events that ultimately lead to various doomsday scenarios.
So what can be done to stop or at least alleviate the severity of a supervolcano eruption, like the one percolating under Yellowstone National Park? Unfortunately, the options range from not much to nothing at all. And given that a supervolcano eruption might lead to an apocalyptic event, one might then wonder if constructing an effective early warning system would constitute an unnecessary cruelty.