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The supervolcano that can wipe out the U.S. and kill billions may be overdue for an eruption

An extinction events expert sounds a dire warning.

Artist rendering of a supervolcano.

Getty Images
  • The supervolcano in Yellowstone National Park could cause an "ultra-catastrophe," warns an extinction events writer.
  • The full eruption of the volcano last happened 640,000 years ago.
  • The blast could kill billions and make United States uninhabitable.


If there weren't enough cataclysms to worry about, a recently published book brought another terrible possibility back into the public spotlight. Among other calamities, Bryan Walsh's "End Times" highlights the eruption of the Yellowstone supervolcano in the United States as an event that could wipe out much of human life on this planet.

Thankfully, the Yellowstone volcano in Wyoming doesn't erupt very often. The last time it did so was 640,000 years ago. Certainly, no one knows when it will blow again, but by some measures it could happen at any point.

When it does happen, the eruption would propel something like 240 cubic miles of rock, dust and ash into the sky, like it did during the last major explosion. It would also create a flow of magma that would bury the area within a 40-mile radius. Chunks of Colorado, Wyoming and Utah would end up under up to three feet of ash. Parts of the Midwest would be covered in at least a few inches of such ash, becoming dark. And if you think that already doesn't sound good, the emission of dust and toxic gases like sulphur monoxide into the atmosphere would create an acidic veil around the planet reflecting sunlight. This would lead to a dramatic cooling of the global climate that would last at least several years.

Volcanic ash eruption.

Credit: Pixabay

This will also result in devastated crops and the destruction of the power grid. Without sunlight, warmth and food, a major loss of life would be incurred. How bad? As Bryan Walsh writes in his op-ed in the New York Times, a 2015 report for the European Science Foundation on extreme geohazards called what might happen "the greatest catastrophe since the dawn of civilization."

Dr. Jerzy Żaba, a geologist from the University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland, was even more specific, saying in an interview that in his estimate, around 5 billion people would die from hunger "due to the effects of climate change." If Yellowstone blows, he suggests that to survive, the only thing to do would be to flee North America. Imagine, American refugees trying to get into South America or Europe.

Bryan Walsh calls this scenario, without much exaggeration, an "existential risk" not just to the U.S., but the world at large. Walsh writes that "existential risk experts largely agree that supervolcanoes — of which there are 20 scattered around the planet — are the natural threat that poses the highest probability of human extinction."

Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, United States. May 2016.

Credit: Russell Pearson/Getty Images

The big question, of course, is when will the Yellowstone supervolcano erupt? The seismically active area in the Yellowstone National Park gets about 3,000 small earthquakes a year, but the catastrophic blasts are infrequent. Besides the so-called "Lava Creek eruption" 640K years ago, the volcano fully exploded approximately 1.3 million and 2.1 million years ago, which means there are about 660,000 to 800,000 years in between.

Of course, no one knows when it will happen next for sure, which is why Walsh believes more resources need to be dedicated to the study of volcanos. Currently, the FAA spends about $7 billion every year on aviation safety while volcano programs, which can potentially cause much more massive casualties, get a paltry $22 million in study expenditures.

Hulu's original movie "Palm Springs" is the comedy we needed this summer

Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.

Gear
  • Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
  • As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
  • The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
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Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.

Surprising Science

Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

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Our ‘little brain’ turns out to be pretty big

The multifaceted cerebellum is large — it's just tightly folded.

Image source: Sereno, et al
Mind & Brain
  • A powerful MRI combined with modeling software results in a totally new view of the human cerebellum.
  • The so-called 'little brain' is nearly 80% the size of the cerebral cortex when it's unfolded.
  • This part of the brain is associated with a lot of things, and a new virtual map is suitably chaotic and complex.

Just under our brain's cortex and close to our brain stem sits the cerebellum, also known as the "little brain." It's an organ many animals have, and we're still learning what it does in humans. It's long been thought to be involved in sensory input and motor control, but recent studies suggests it also plays a role in a lot of other things, including emotion, thought, and pain. After all, about half of the brain's neurons reside there. But it's so small. Except it's not, according to a new study from San Diego State University (SDSU) published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

A neural crêpe

A new imaging study led by psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist Martin Sereno of the SDSU MRI Imaging Center reveals that the cerebellum is actually an intricately folded organ that has a surface area equal in size to 78 percent of the cerebral cortex. Sereno, a pioneer in MRI brain imaging, collaborated with other experts from the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands.

So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.

The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."

This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

Economists show how welfare programs can turn a "profit"

What happens if we consider welfare programs as investments?

A homeless man faces Wall Street

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • A recently published study suggests that some welfare programs more than pay for themselves.
  • It is one of the first major reviews of welfare programs to measure so many by a single metric.
  • The findings will likely inform future welfare reform and encourage debate on how to grade success.
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