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Are we ready for the big one?

It’s long been known that if the Yellowstone supervolcano were to erupt at full force, the loss of life would be substantial and the effects on the world’s climate would be disastrous — water sources would be fouled, crops would fail, many people would die directly and indirectly.

In an international report that has recently captured headlines, scientists have attempted to quantify the threat of such catastrophes while also urging governments worldwide to collaborate on investment in scientific research to better prepare the world in hopes of lessening the impacts of such a calamity.

“I think the paper and its contents are very valuable,” said Bob Smith, a University of Utah researcher who has long studied the geodynamics of Yellowstone, even if certain websites tend to sensationalize the findings to the “point of annoyance.”

The warnings and recommendations are contained in “Extreme Geohazards: Reducing the Disaster Risk and Increasing Resilience.” The report was supported by the European Science Foundation and included an international cast of authors with expertise in such diverse fields as economics, health and earth sciences.

“It’s one of the only reports I’ve ever seen that takes a geologic perspective in thinking about hazards,” said Jake Lowenstern, a research geologist for the U.S. Geological Survey and scientist-in-charge of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory.

Natural disasters

In recent decades, the United States has suffered its share of natural disasters. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 caused an estimated $40 billion in damage and killed almost 2,000 people, and it was narrowly confined. Volcanic eruptions, on the other hand, especially ones the size of the Yellowstone supervolcano’s last explosion, would far exceed anything modern humans have experienced, the researchers contend.

The worst, most recent volcanic eruption took place in 1815 in Tambora, Indonesia, leading to the deaths of 92,000 people. That eruption was given a Volcanic Explosivity Index of 7, one being the least explosive. Mount St. Helens in Washington state was rated VEI 5 and killed 57 people.

In contrast, the latest Yellowstone volcanic eruption was a VEI 8 and occurred about 640,000 years ago. Another VEI 8 occurred about 74,000 years ago in Toba, Indonesia, and killed an estimated 60 percent of the population. If such an eruption were to occur now with a much more populated Earth, the authors write ominously, it “could return humanity to a pre-civilization state.”

“It’s sobering,” Lowenstern said.

Smith said the probability of Yellowstone’s volcano erupting in any year is extremely low, less than .00014 percent.

“Since the last large eruptions, there have been 50 to 70 smaller eruptions contained primarily in the Yellowstone caldera,” he said, and more than a dozen small hydrothermal eruptions occur every year. “You look at that and ask: Are we truly overdue, or has the volcanism pattern changed?”


The paper’s authors contend that more attention should be focused on forecasting and preparing for such a cataclysmic event. Smith agreed.

“Most of the big volcanoes around the world are not monitored,” he said.

Yellowstone’s volcano is an exception. Smith has been at the forefront of installing better monitoring tools around the volcano, including 35 seismographs, 45 GPS stations to detect horizontal and vertical displacement and even five seismographs installed in the ground. The monitoring has been largely funded by the National Science Foundation and U.S. Geological Survey.

“We have a big network in Yellowstone,” Smith said. “We’ve worked really hard on redundancy” to get information out of Yellowstone should certain communication means, like phone lines, fail.

Measured in lives

The importance of monitoring volcanoes can be measured in lives, the international researchers claim. Although exact figures are debated, the 1918-1919 Spanish flu has been credited with the deaths of between 21 million and 50 million people. A VEI 8 eruption has the potential to dwarf that death toll, the authors write. “ … volcanic eruption could easily kill (through the many indirect effects, in particular, food scarcity) a higher percentage of the global population than the Spanish flu if it occurred without any global preparation effort.”

“The problem with geologic events is that they happen so rarely that people don’t really think about an earthquake or volcanic feature, so they brush it off,” Smith said. “When one hits, it’s an enormous stress on a population. If you don’t prepare and mitigate, that’s when you get the greatest loss of human life.”

Smith said humans around the world are reliant on their governments and politicians to prepare for extreme disasters because, although scientists may not be able to forecast when an earthquake or volcanic explosion will occur, there is a wealth of knowledge about the effects of such catastrophes.

“It should be a wake-up call to those who read it and can make decisions,” Lowenstern said. “It’s a very credible job that they’ve done looking long-term at global-scale risks."

The paper also points out that because of the increase in the world’s population and its many interconnections through global trade, large disasters can have effects far beyond a specific region.

“Preparedness has gotten more imperative because the Earth has gotten a hell of a lot smaller,” Smith said.