G+ YouTube Pinterest Instagram
The Gap Year Blog

The Mystery Beneath Yellowstone

12 Jan 2018 11:25 AM

There’s no easy way to say this…but a deadly supervolcano lies underneath Yellowstone National Park. Super is not an understatement; if it ever erupts, it will certainly be destructive, where some scientists vision the capacity to wipe out human life!

Yellowstone National Park lies in the northwest of America, covering the three states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, though 96% of it is owed to Wyoming. The park is famous for its 3,468 square miles of outstanding natural beauty, wildlife and of course geothermal features such as the famous Old Faithful geyser. The ongoing volcanism battling underneath is a true mystery. 

What makes a supervolcano different to a normal ‘volcano’? 

Well, a supervolcano will erupt on an intense scale, covering more than 240 cubic miles, ranking more than 8 on the Volcano Explosivity Index (VEI). A ranking this high is unimaginable as most eruptions have a VEI of three to four, so 8 is really tremendous. Yellowstone has had 3 major events in the last 2 million years, and it is believed that the last volcanic eruption occurred 174,000 years ago, which created massive crater-like features and calderas in many locations under Yellowstone, as well as an active, giant magma chamber. 

Photo credit: Flickr | Libernaventure

What are the chances of the supervolcano erupting?

A reason for the mystery underneath Yellowstone is that volcanologists are uncertain of its capacity; they cannot quantify the magma, unsure when a super eruption could occur and what the effects will be, and most of all indecisive as to whether it will kill us all! 

In terms of scientific predictions, an eruption in our life time, even our grandchildren’s lifetimes is very unrealistic, but we can never rule out the unknown. Bristol University scientists suggest super eruptions could occur every 17,000 years; whilst the latest occurred 30,000 years ago, a new one may not be in sight. The majority of volcanologists however, share the same beliefs, that there probably isn’t enough magma beneath the surface for there to be an eruption soon. 

Michael Poland, a top volcanologist at the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory, states there has to be a considerable amount of magma in the subsurface, essentially being top of the supervolcano criteria. He claims, “in order to be able to put all of that stuff onto the surface and into the atmosphere you have to have it below the surface to begin with”. This is what makes Yellowstone so fascinating, we have no idea how much magma there is beneath! Some evidence shows the magma reservoir is only 15% molten, and if true, it is not capable of an eruption. But this evidence is inconclusive and only based on estimates.

Photo credit: Flickr | David Brossard


What could the effects be?

There is both yes and no answers to questions relating to the supervolcano wiping out mankind. The same volcanologist, Michael Poland finds it strange when people mention an eruption will doom humanity. His thoughts are that super eruptions have occurred before when humans have been on the planet, many of which larger than the last Yellowstone eruption, and these certainly did not cause human extinction! For example, the Toba super eruption 75,000 years ago. Although this caused global catastrophe, it did not, so to speak, wipe out humans; it did however cause a long period of global cooling and initiated a global ecological disaster. This could mean the Yellowstone supervolcano could plunge the into a global winter… but no one really knows the extent of this!

Brian Wilcox suggests the greatest effect of the Yellowstone super eruption will be starvation. A prolonged global winter could prohibit civilisation from having enough food, estimating only 74 days worth of food reserves worldwide after eruption. 

When scientists claim ‘wipe out humans’, they don’t mean at once, that it too dramatic! It based in terms of starvation like Brian Wilcox suggests, as well as the indirect effects from lava and ash plumes. The ongoing effects such as global cooling could consequently have an effect on human health around the whole planet, not just America.


Photo credit: Flickr | Victor Gonzalez Couso

NASA’s involvement 

Interacting with the nature of a giant supervolcano sounds like a bad idea, but when it comes to NASA, we should probably hear them out. NASA are proposing to ‘cool’ Yellowstone’s magma chamber down. Could this really work? 

Yellowstone is essentially a massive heat generator and leaks 60-70% of its heat up into the atmosphere through the geysers, while the rest builds up inside the magma chamber. When the remainder of heat reaches a threshold, an explosive eruption will inevitably occur. However, what NASA consider is if more heat is extracted, then the supervolcano will never erupt! NASA estimates that if 35% of the heat is extracted somehow, the volcano would no longer be a global threat. Though, their proposition could be very controversial with political figures, not to mention costly. Increasing the water supply to the supervolcano is easier said than done, as drilling 10km down under Yellowstone and pumping water at high pressure to regulate temperature will cost over $3 Billion. Believe it or not, there is talk of the supervolcano becoming a geothermal plant, generating electric power and giving geothermal companies incentives for ongoing investment.

Photo credit: Flickr | Chris Ford


You might be thinking this already, but isn’t drilling into a supervolcano going to trigger the eruption that is supposed to be prevented! However, the way NASA are doing this is avoiding any direct contact with the magma chamber, and drilling from the lower sides outside the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park. All we can say at this point in time is good luck to NASA if this proposal gets the heads up. It seems too good to be true, but if it has the capability of stopping a super eruption, then this is ideal!

By Sophia-Harri Nicholaou - Online Journalism Intern

Frontier runs terrestrial & marine conservation, community, teaching and adventure projects in over 50 countries - join us and explore the world!