Supervolcanoes: Not a threat for 2012

November 15, 2011, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
In Yellowstone, the rim of a supervolcano caldera is visible in the distance. Credit: Credit: National Park Service.

The geological record holds clues that throughout Earth's 4.5-billion-year lifetime massive supervolcanoes, far larger than Mount St. Helens or Mount Pinatubo, have erupted. However, despite the claims of those who fear 2012, there's no evidence that such a supereruption is imminent.

What exactly is a "supervolcano" or a "supereruption?" Both terms are fairly new and favored by the media more than scientists, but have begun to use them in recent years to refer to explosive volcanic eruptions that eject about ten thousand times the quantity of magma and that Mount St. Helens, one of the most explosive eruptions in recent years, expelled.

It's hard to comprehend an eruption of that scope, but Earth's surface has preserved distinctive clues of many massive supereruptions. Expansive layers of ash blanket large portions of many . And huge hollowed-out calderas – craters that can be as big as 60 miles (100 km) across left when a volcano collapses after emptying its entire magma chamber at once – serve as visceral reminders of past supereruptions in Indonesia, New Zealand, the United States, and Chile.

The eruption of these prehistoric supervolcanoes has affected massive areas. The magma flow of Mount Toba in Sumutra, which erupted some 74,000 years ago in what was likely the largest eruption that has ever occurred, released a staggering 700 cubic miles (2,800 cubic km) of magma and left a thick layer of ash over all of South Asia. For comparison, the quantity of magma erupted from Indonesia's Mount Krakatau in 1883, one of the largest eruptions in recorded history, was about 3 cubic miles (12 cubic km).

Volcanologists continue to seek answers to many unanswered questions about supervolcanoes. For example, what triggers their eruptions, and why do they fail to erupt until their chambers achieve such enormous proportions? How does the composition compare to more familiar eruptions? And how can we predict when the next supervolcano will erupt?

But there's one thing that all experts agree on: supereruptions, though they occur, are exceedingly rare and the odds that one will occur in the lifetime of anybody reading this article are vanishingly small.

The most recent supereruption occurred in New Zealand about 26,000 years ago. The next most recent: the cataclysmic eruption of Mount Toba happened about 50,000 years earlier. In all, geologists have identified the remnant of about 50 supereruptions, though teams are in the process of evaluating a number of other possibilities.

That may sound like a large number. However, when one group of scientists used the count of all the known supervolcanoes to calculate the approximate frequency of eruptions, they found that only 1.4 supereruptions occur every one million years.

That's not to say that a supervolcano will occur every million years at regular intervals. Many millions of years could pass without a supereruption or many supervolcanoes could erupt in just a short period. The does suggest supervolcanoes occur in clusters, but the clusters are not regular enough to serve as the basis for predictions of future eruptions.

Scientists have no way of predicting with perfect accuracy whether a will occur in a given century, decade, or year – and that includes 2012. But they do keep close tabs on volcanically active areas around the world, and so far there's absolutely no sign of a supereruption looming anytime soon.

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1 / 5 (3) Nov 15, 2011
Read N. N. Taleb The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable
5 / 5 (1) Nov 15, 2011
Similar statistics apply to big meteorite impacts, but there's a belated search on for 'potentially hazardous' candidates.
2.3 / 5 (9) Nov 15, 2011
Volcanic activity has probably diminished as the Earth aged, but I am unaware of any scientific evidence that supervolcanoes will, or will not, occur in 2012.

With kind regards,
Oliver K. Manuel
Former NASA Principal
Investigator for Apollo
5 / 5 (2) Nov 15, 2011
This is a sophomoric press release from NASA staff with too much time on their hands. The US agency with the most expertise in volcanoes is the US Geological Survey, which studies all US volcanoes and has extensive international collaborations. USGS even has a full-time staff at the Yellowstone Supervolcano, monitoring the beast and studying vulcanism.
I think NASA prepared this as a PR piece to reassure the public that the movie 2012 was BS.
5 / 5 (1) Nov 16, 2011
Don't worry! world will not end in 2012!
1 / 5 (3) Nov 16, 2011
1.2 / 5 (6) Nov 16, 2011
The worldwide entanglement of science, politics and economics is destroying the credibility of all three and creating great and unnecessary social unrest.



Regretfully, that is where we are today.

Oliver K. Manuel
Former NASA Principal
Investigator for Apollo
3 / 5 (4) Nov 16, 2011
Callippo/Zephir/whateversockpuppetyoucurrentlyuse - Scienceray is not a legitimate science news site. The article there includes the word "fears" without stating a source. Who is afraid? Uninformed people? Clueless people?
1 / 5 (1) Nov 16, 2011
Robert B. Smith, professor of geophysics at the University of Utah, who has led a recent study into the volcano, added: "Our best evidence is that the crustal magma chamber is filling with molten rock. But we have no idea how long this process goes on before there either is an eruption or the inflow of molten rock stops and the caldera deflates again".


So, if we don't know something, we cannot be sure with the opposite.
2 / 5 (4) Nov 16, 2011
By some studies the Yellowstone volcano erupted during each 600 millions of years regularly and the last eruption happened before 640 millions of years.


The dynamics of caldera rise is increasing with alarming speed during last decade.


Even worse is, the rising of Yellowstone caldera is followed with shift in horizontal direction during last years in similar way, like at the case of bubble, which is raising towards water surface. Such displacement could serve as an indicia, the moment of caldera rupture is nearing...


So I really don't know, why we are interpreting these data in the exactly the opposite way - what such research is good for, after then? One possible explanation could be the attempt to cover some even worse indicia and to avoid the global panic.
5 / 5 (3) Nov 16, 2011
You have your decimal points wrong. The Yellowstone supervolcano last erupted 640,000 years ago, NOT 640 million years. The last three major eruptions were 2.1 million years ago, 1.3 million years ago, and 640,000 years ago. We can guesstimate that the Yellowstone supervolcano is erupting over 700,000-year cycles, NOT 600 million years. (See Wikipedia "Yellowstone Supervolcano")
2.3 / 5 (8) Nov 16, 2011
How far in advance have volcanic eruptions been predicted?
1.7 / 5 (6) Nov 16, 2011
How far in advance have volcanic eruptions been predicted?

As you know, they cannot predict volcanic eruptions.

Neither can they deny that a volcano might erupt.

Thus the story above is not science.
2.3 / 5 (3) Nov 17, 2011
Oh, look, a successful prediction of an eruption: http://www.physor...lly.html . Feel free to apologize at any time.
2.3 / 5 (3) Nov 17, 2011
Callippo - from your dailymail article: "Once we saw the magma was at a depth of ten kilometres, we weren't so concerned... If it had been at depths of two or three kilometre we'd have been a lot more concerned." The same article also states that there have been 30 smaller eruptions since the last big one, so even if Yellowstone is gearing up for an eruption, odds are overwhelmingly in favor of a small eruption. Stop the fearmongering.
1 / 5 (2) Nov 17, 2011
""Volcanoes are notoriously difficult to forecast and much less is known about undersea volcanoes than those on land, so the ability to monitor Axial Seamount, and determine that it was on a path toward an impending eruption is pretty exciting," "
""The acid test in science whether or not you understand a process in nature is to try to predict what will happen based on your observations," Chadwick said. "We have done this and it is extremely satisfying that we were successful. Now we can build on that knowledge and look to apply it to other undersea volcanoes and perhaps even volcanoes on land.""
Note: "Perhaps even volcanoes on land."
not rated yet Nov 20, 2011
@Callippo - Even though I think we'll make it through 2012 without trouble from the Yellowstone supervolcano I think your concern with the subject is well-founded. When the big eruption occurs it will be more devasting than any disaster in human history. It's likely that hundreds of millions of people would die globally from the direct effects plus famine. Hundreds of other species will probably be annihilated.
The scariest thing about this supervolcano is that it appears to erupt catastrophically in cycles of perhaps 700,000 years, and it has been 640,000 years since the last time. We don't know what the pre-eruption process will look like, or how much warning we'll get, because there has not been a supervolcanic eruption in human history. I am disappointed in the shoestring-budget approach that the
US is taking toward this emerging monster.

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