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.
- 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.
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.
- Physicist discovers the explosions that will end our Universe - Big Think ›
- One billion Americans: Is it a good idea? - Big Think ›
What would happen if you tripled the US population? Join Matthew Yglesias and Charles Duhigg at 1pm ET on Monday, September 28.
An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.
- A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
- A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
- Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.
The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.
Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .
The Barry Arm Fjord
Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach
Image source: Matt Zimmerman
The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.
Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest
Image source: whrc.org
There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.
The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.
"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."
Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.
What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord
Moving slowly at first...
Image source: whrc.org
"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."
The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.
Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.
Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.
While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.
Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."
How do you prepare for something like this?
Image source: whrc.org
The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:
"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."
In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.
Dominique Crenn, the only female chef in America with three Michelin stars, joins Big Think Live.
Having been exposed to mavericks in the French culinary world at a young age, three-star Michelin chef Dominique Crenn made it her mission to cook in a way that is not only delicious and elegant, but also expressive, memorable, and true to her experience.
New experiments find weird quantum activity in supercold gas.
Quantum Mechanics, Onions, and a Theory of Everything<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="036ae7b8dd661df2d125a3421a0299ba"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/bcVruA0AJ-o?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Researchers say that moral self-licensing occurs "because good deeds make people feel secure in their moral self-regard."
Books about race and anti-racism have dominated bestseller lists in the past few months, bringing to prominence authors including Ibram Kendi, Ijeoma Oluo, Reni Eddo-Lodge, and Robin DiAngelo.