The Bubbling Yellowstone Volcano

Yellowstone National Park has been struck by three massive volcanic blasts—2.1 million, 1.3 million and 640,000 years ago—creating a caldera that spans a whopping 40 miles! Now, the Yellowstone volcano has erupted about every 600,000 to 800,000 years. Given we’re 640,000 years since the last major eruption, in that sweet spot, could it be time for another eruption?

When Will It Erupt?

Yellowstone’s many hydrothermal features attest to the heat brewing below ground, as do earthquakes. Believe it or not, the National Park witnesses 1,000 to 3,000 earthquakes per year!

Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Spring, one of the parks many geothermal features, discharges an estimated 560 gallons of 160 °F water per minute!

Recently, geologists have noted an uptick in earthquakes in the area, along with the rising height of the caldera—as much as 2.8 inches per year—both a result of increased magma flow and a potential sign that she’s ready to blow.

But, almost everyone who studies Yellowstone’s super volcano says we have no way of really knowing when the next big blast will happen. The U.S. Geological Survey puts us at 1 in 730,000 odds—about the same chance as a catastrophic asteroid collision. The probability is small, but the consequences are huge!

What Would Happen?

History’s largest landslide occurred during the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens.

With little warning, an eruption at Yellowstone could be 6,000 times more powerful than the 1980 Mount St Helens eruption that killed 57 people and sent ash to eleven different states and five Canadian provinces. Like Mount St. Helens, this wouldn’t be a fiery inferno of death (well, it would be for those within a 60 mile radius—they’d be incinerated). Rather a death from above.

Most of the real danger is airborne. Yellowstone’s neighbors would be covered in three feet of volcanic ash and the rest of the country would be dusted coast to coast.

Numerous gases would also be released, including sulfur dioxide, which forms an aerosol that absorbs sunlight, resulting in a cooling effect that would last a decade. This shift would have major impacts on the environment, from altering rainfall to spurring frosts and hindering the ability for plants to photosynthesize—all in all contributing to crop loss and, in turn, widespread famine.

How Can We Prepare?

There isn’t much we can do to prepare, but hopefully we have some time.

Currently, NASA is looking into drilling directly into the Yellowstone caldera, in hopes to release some pressure and reduce the impending explosion’s magnitude.

Cross your fingers for another 100,000 years or so!