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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.

How accountability at work can transform your organization

If you don't practice accountability at work you're letting the formula for success slip right through your hands.

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  • What is accountability? It's a tool for improving performance and, once its potential is thoroughly understood, it can be leveraged at scale in any team or organization.
  • In this lesson for leaders, managers, and individuals, Shideh Sedgh Bina, a founding partner of Insigniam and the editor-in-chief of IQ Insigniam Quarterly, explains why it is so crucial to success.
  • Learn to recognize the mindset of accountable versus unaccountable people, then use Shideh's guided exercise as a template for your next post-project accountability analysis—whether that project was a success or it fell short, it's equally important to do the reckoning.

What if Middle-earth was in Pakistan?

Iranian Tolkien scholar finds intriguing parallels between subcontinental geography and famous map of Middle-earth

Could this former river island in the Indus have inspired Tolkien to create Cair Andros, the ship-shaped island in the Anduin river?

Image: Mohammad Reza Kamali, reproduced with kind permission
Strange Maps
  • J.R.R. Tolkien himself hinted that his stories are set in a really ancient version of Europe.
  • But a fantasy realm can be inspired by a variety of places; and perhaps so is Tolkien's world.
  • These intriguing similarities with Asian topography show that it may be time to 'decolonise' Middle-earth.
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Giant whale sharks have teeth on their eyeballs

The ocean's largest shark relies on vision more than previously believed.

An eight-metre-long Whale shark swims with other fish at the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium on February 26, 2010 in Motobu, Okinawa, Japan.

Photo by Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • Japanese researchers discovered that the whale shark has "tiny teeth"—dermal denticles—protecting its eyes from abrasion.
  • They also found the shark is able to retract its eyeball into the eye socket.
  • Their research confirms that this giant fish relies on vision more than previously believed.
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A massive star has mysteriously vanished, confusing astronomers

A gigantic star makes off during an eight-year gap in observations.

Image source: ESO/L. Calçada
Surprising Science
  • The massive star in the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy seems to have disappeared between 2011 and 2019.
  • It's likely that it erupted, but could it have collapsed into a black hole without a supernova?
  • Maybe it's still there, but much less luminous and/or covered by dust.

A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."

Or...

A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."

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Changing the way we grade students could trigger a wave of innovation

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