While most Americans consider Yellowstone National Park to be an idyllic summer vacation destination, lurking under the surface of this natural wonder is something that one day could threaten the lives and property of the majority of people living in the United States — a massive supervolcano, estimated by scientists to be one of Earth’s largest, capable of tremendous destructive force and the power to force the medium-term evacuation of up to 75 percent of America.
By now, you might have seen or read something about this giant menace, due to an unusual series of earthquakes that have been recorded in the region in and around Yellowstone in the last several years. Since mid-June, there have been over 2,000 seismic tremors detected, leading NASA researchers to issue statements about the unusual activity.
The supervolcano, which is officially known as the Yellowstone Caldera, covers an area approximately 1,530 square miles deep underground over 33 percent of the park. It last erupted some 630,000 years ago, but ongoing volcanic activity is responsible for the many geothermal vents located throughout the park, including the renowned Old Faithful geyser that thousands of tourists come to observe and take pictures of.
The danger that scientists are worried about is the high-pressure magma chamber of the Caldera that’s located roughly five miles underground. This magma chamber, which is at least 50 miles long and 12 miles wide, contains at least 70 cubic miles of molten lava — enough to fill up the Grand Canyon 11 times — as well as dissolved gasses that could explode in a chain reaction if the Earth’s crust were ever to crack in the wrong way, either due to an earthquake or other seismic activity. If such a chain reaction were to occur, it would be the cause of a “supereruption” the likes of which hasn’t been seen on Earth in at least 200 years.
The last time one occurred was when Indonesia’s Mount Tambora erupted on April 5, 1815. The initial detonation of that eruption could be heard 870 miles away on the Molucca Islands.
Volcanic ash began to flow for the next five days from the site until what was thought to be the sound of guns firing was heard on the island of Sumatra, 1,600 miles away on April 10. That day, columns of fire shot up from Mount Tambora and the entire mountain was consumed in a mass of flowing lava. Up to 10 billion tons of rocks up to 8 inches in diameter were ejected by the volcano and rained down in the region, followed by volcanic ash.
The nearby village of Tambora was wiped out by lava flows, and further massive explosions were heard. Ash from the eruption fell up to 800 miles away, and the sky was pitch black up to 370 miles around the mountain for at least two days. The immediate death toll from the eruption was roughly 4,600 people, but due to subsequent lava flows, starvation, famine, disease and other effects, the total number of casualties may have been up to 100,000. This number would have been even higher if the island the mountain was on was more inhabited or if dense, Western-style cities were present in Indonesia at this time. A similar explosion taking place presently in the center region of the United States could be many times more devastating in terms of loss of life.
But even beyond an initial death toll, the effects of a supervolcano are prolonged. In 1815, the eruption of Mount Tambora darkened skies worldwide and caused what’s known as a “global climate anomaly.” Temperatures worldwide decreased and countries in the Earth’s northern hemisphere experienced what historians dubbed “The Year Without a Summer.” Most North American crops were ruined, and snows were recorded in June in Albany, New York and in Quebec City, Canada.
In Europe, there were outbreaks of typhus epidemics that were blamed on the climate anomaly, and a new strain of cholera broke out in India. Harvests failed in Britain and Ireland in 1816, and families in Wales became refugees, begging for food. In many European cities, there were instances of arson, riots and looting caused by the event. The worst famine of the entire 19th century was recorded in 1816.
In all, the effects of the eruption were palpable into 1818, three years after the original event occurred. Previous supervolcano eruptions are suspected to have caused the widespread extinction of species on Earth, including Neanderthal humans.
It’s estimated that if the Yellowstone Caldera were to erupt, up to 90,000 people living in the immediate region would die within hours from suffocation, impact or lava flows. Volcanic ash would spread at least 500 miles from the area in easterly and southern directions.
Many crops growing in the Midwest would be covered by up to 12 inches of ash and would fail. In effect, a year would pass with nuclear winter-like temperatures throughout much of the U.S. The resulting food shortage would impact the entire world.
Most air traffic and wireless communication in the United States would be impossible within days of the event occurring. Sulfur dioxide emitted from the eruption would cause acid rain to fall over much of the Eastern United States.
Some experts say that up to 75 percent of the U.S. could be uninhabitable for a year or longer, and people would have to be relocated to areas outside the country. There are even rumors that the U.S. has contracts with the governments of South Africa, Australia, Brazil and Argentina for such eventualities.
Suffice it to say, from an economic, logistical and humanitarian point-of-view, a disaster such as this one — even if it didn’t cause truly catastrophic loss of life in the immediate term — would be a defining event in world history and possibly the cause of the end of the U.S. republic.
Knowing this, scientists at NASA have proposed plans that could slowly release some of the heat and pressure of the Yellowstone Caldera by drilling into it and pumping down water that would be extracted as geothermal power. But by publicizing these proposals, these same scientists have called attention to the risk of a supereruption that could be taken advantage of by a desperate enemy of the United States.
Right now, such an enemy could well be the rogue nation of North Korea, whose rapidly developing arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) will one day soon be able to be outfitted with nuclear warheads capable of detonating over an American city — or, if their aim was precise enough — over the Yellowstone Caldera — with cataclysmic results.
In fact, there are only three obstacles that could possibly prevent a North Korean ICBM from triggering the Yellowstone Caldera tomorrow. The first is whether or not the Hermit Kingdom has perfected a missile nose cone that’s capable of withstanding the heat of re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere from orbital flight. Analysts disagree on whether the North Koreans have achieved this milestone in their weapon development program.
The second obstacle is whether a North Korean ICBM could accurately target the precise area of the Yellowstone Caldera that would be needed to trigger a supereruption. While the Caldera’s physical size is large, there are very specific hotspots that are likely the only places where a massive blast might be significant enough to activate the chain reaction needed to begin a supereruption. It’s a very big question whether the North Korean ICBMs are accurate to within the few miles that would be necessary to achieve this (most experts would likely say the answer to this question — for now — is no).
The third obstacle is the biggest unknown of all, and that is — even if an ICBM were to detonate in the exact right place at ground level (most nuclear weapons are designed to detonate in the atmosphere to cause maximum damage), would the depth of the Caldera be too far underground to be affected by such a blast? Given that North Korea has now tested a massively powerful hydrogen bomb, it may be approaching the strength needed to affect even areas that are miles beneath the Earth’s surface.
In the wake of North Korea’s latest nuclear bomb test on September 3, satellite observations of the test site showed mudslides in multiple locations, leading to fears that the mountain site within which the test was conducted could collapse, releasing huge quantities of harmful radiation into the region. Experts say that even if the site is not close to collapse, it’s highly probable another test cannot be conducted at the site because it would almost certainly trigger such a cave-in.
On September 12, China announced it would be closing a nature preserve near the border of North Korea due to fears about a smaller volcano known as Mt. Paektu — considered a holy site by North Koreans — which lies mostly on the North Korean side of the border. Roughly 10 minutes after the September 3 North Korean nuclear test, tremors were felt near the volcano.
Mt. Paektu last erupted in 1903. According to the scientific journal Nature, “an underground nuclear explosion test near an active volcano constitutes a direct threat” that could “accelerate volcanic activity.” So it seems that even within its own borders, North Korea is quite literally playing with fire in this respect.
Like scientists who study the potential of an airliner to strike a nuclear power plant (numerous such studies have been conducted), this scenario should be carefully considered by the Pentagon. If it were possible to occur, all the North Koreans would need to effect it would be one specific ICBM getting through American missile defenses. That’s a risk that’s likely too big for America to take.