Did you hear that?
~Batuwara(Krakatoa Island 1883)
This is the first in a series of articles discussing one of my favorite subjects – The end of the world. Now, before you ask, “What the fuck is your problem?”, I’d like to say that it is a purely scientific interest only slightly tainted by deep feelings of misanthropy. So, we cool here? O.K. Let’s begin.
On August 27, 1883 the island of Krakatoa exploded. Literally. A series of four mammoth blasts destroyed the island in a matter of hours. The sound of the explosions could be heard up to 3,000 miles away. Probably the loudest sound ever heard by man. The shock wave from the blast registered on instruments all around the world for 5 full days afterward. It had to have been the most awesome thing anyone has ever seen. Then died horribly of. Tsunamis with hundred foot crests pummeled what was left of the island one after another. Over 30,000 people died in this catastrophe. There were reports of survivors but most were too traumatized to speak about the ordeal. Ash fell hundreds of miles away in Sumatra adding another thousand to the death toll. So,e estimate that 120,00o people were killed by the combined effects of the explosion. Krakatoa ejected enough dirt to cover Rhode Island into the atmosphere and global temperatures fell over full degree. Weather patterns remained hectic for years afterward.
Krakatoa was very much a super volcano. An epic display of nature’s might that was felt on a global level. But bigger mountains have exploded in the distant past. Greater beasts still lurk in the world today, waiting to burst forth. But before we get into that, let’s get into just what volcanoes are and how these awesome spectacles of nature’s majesty work and come into being.
Most volcanic activity on earth takes place underwater. Divergent boundaries caused by tectonic plates pulling away from one another. The thin crust on the ocean floor is eaten away by magma in the interior as it bubbles up and forms new crust. Most of the ocean floor is in a constant state of shift and change. The volcanism manifests itself in fissures pumping out hot magma and sending plumes of black smoke jetting into the water, referred to as black smokers. The type of volcanoes we are most familiar with above ground are caused by convergent boundaries, the collision of two plates. This is the process that produces earthquakes and creates mountains. The plate in the Himalayas is still moving. Mt. Everest gets a little taller every year. In places where geothermal activity is greatest these mountains become volcanoes. As they rise they carry magma from the interior to the surface. Examples being Mt. Fuji and Mt. St. Helens. But there are many different kinds of volcanoes. From simple fissures in the ground spewing lava to giant “shield volcanoes” formed by layers of hardened lava.
Lava is ejected magma or molten rock. It’s also the name of the brittle rock it forms into when it cools. Lava can reach temperatures over 2,000 degrees. Hot enough to melt iron and seriously weaken the durability of steel. Lava is much more viscous than water meaning it is much more “fluid” and can travel great distances before cooling and hardening. However lava flows tend to move slowly, though there are reports of a fast moving flows catching people by surprise.
Earth is not the only planet featuring volcanoes. Mars contains the largest volcano, and mountain, in our solar system, Olympus Mons (Mt. Olympus). It is a shield volcano, much like the volcanoes of Hawaii, formed by layer after layer of spent magma and debris. An estimated height of 13-18 miles, it is nearly 3 times as tall as Mt. Everest. Activity in Mars’ core ceased long ago so Olympus is now extinct. Given its size, the forces of the eruption would be inconceivable on Earth. Another definite supervolcano. Jupiter’s moon, Io is home to active volcanoes. Venus as well. Volcanoes are a sign that a planet is alive. Our core, our heart, is beating and the magma is it’s lifeblood. The end of this activity is what killed Mars. A similar fate may be in Earth’s future. But, for now, our core still turns and magma still shoots to the surface wherever it can. When the pressure reaches a tipping point, we get a volcano. Magma forms in the interior and flows out becoming lava.
Some volcanoes don’t build up though. Some form calderas, massive canyons where magma has eaten the ground away. They are without the conical or shield type structures we associate with most volcanoes. They are just giant pits of pressure ready to detonate. These are the lairs of the supervolcano. Supervolcanoes cause eruptions thousands of times more powerful than any volcano we can think of. Volcanic explosions are measured with the VEI(Volcanic Eruption Index). Ranging from 0 for non explosive volcanoes, all the way to 8 for mega-colossal explosions. An 8 has yet to be recorded by humans, though several have erupted in the distant past, as close as 26,000 years ago. Krakatoa was a 6 and at least 5 level 7 explosions have been recorded.
But let’s go back to Yellowstone. Yellowstone National Park contains one of the largest volcanic calderas on Earth. Yellowstone is one of two existing supervolcanoes with the potential to register a level 8 eruption, or beyond. The other is located in Lake Toba in Sumatra. Toba erupted around 70,000 years ago. It was the largest eruption on Earth in the last 25 million years. It induced a global volcanic winter that dropped temperatures significantly. Extinctions were abundant worldwide and some argue that the percentage of prehistoric humans dropped to catastrophic levels, nearly causing our extinction. Though that part is debatable, it;s effect on the glove is not. Pumice from the explosion could be found literally on the other side of the world. Ice caps in Greenland record a drastic drop in organic carbon caused by the persistence of volcanic ash and fumes in the upper atmosphere. Toba is still active and fully capable of a repeat performance.
Simply going by the odds Yellowstone is the most likely to detonate next, and it has the potential to be every bit as devastating. The eruption would probably be heralded by one of the largest, if not the largest, earthquakes ever recorded on the North American continent. It would be felt in every corner of the United States. Including Alaska. The valley containing the caldera would be torn apart. Chunks of earth the size of cities would be ejected into the air. Plumes of gas and debris would rocket miles into the atmosphere.
Remember that volcano that erupted in Iceland last year? Disrupted travel all over much of Europe? This would be thousands of those volcanoes going off at once. An explosion greater than mighty Krakatoa. The world would feel it’s effects but America will be utterly devastated. Here is a photo detailing the ash fall area from Yellowstone’s last eruption. Keep in mind the next one is predicted to be bigger.
Most of America would be gone. Buried in a blanket of ash ten feet deep. Darkness would set in as dust and gas settles in the atmosphere. Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming would be consumed by fire like something out of the Bible. A blast wave would stretch out for thousands of miles in all directions, leveling everything in it’s path. Followed by an all consuming wall of fire. And the ash cloud would expand. Yellowstone will erupt for days if not weeks. A volcanic winter would cover much of the planet as dust and gas in the atmosphere block out sunlight. Temperatures will drop and many plants and animals around the world will die. The electromagnetic energy turning in the debris cloud will mess with satellite signals and make communication incredibly difficult.
Temperature drops would persist for years. Weather patterns would go crazy adding more injury to an already beaten world. It would take decades after the eruption for any plant life to even begin coming back. Global acid rain would destroy remaining crops and poison lakes and streams for decades as well.
The death tolls would be staggering. particularly in America. We could lose almost 3/4 of our population. Effects of the explosion could lead to global death tolls in the billions. The human race will most likely survive but what kind of world will they be stepping into? Death and disease all around, the land and water poisoned, our machines all but useless. Especially in America and Southwestern Canada. It’d take years to dig out from the ash. Generations to bring the land back to sustainability. decades before weather patterns achieved some sense of normalcy. We would be starting all over again. Much of the world would be. And maybe we’d get it right this time.
Though odds of a supervolcano erupting are far greater than a doomsday asteroid impact, it is still not likely according to some scientists. They still admit Yellowstone is overdue for an eruption but geothermal activity in the Earth is slowing down. Mammoth volcanic eruptions are seeming less and less likely as the Earth gets older. Many still sound the alarm bells. And rightfully so. Supervolcanoes have yet to be statistically eliminated and therefor remain a very real possibility. The problem with talking about it though is that there isn’t really a lot that can be done about it. One day we’ll figure out how to deflect asteroids but we have no answers for volcanoes. Just like earthquakes, tornadoes, and pretty much every other force of nature. We are at her mercy and she is merciless.
Well, I hope you enjoyed this first, and admittedly weakest, installment in this new series. I don’t really get excited about volcanoes and I kinda half-assed this one. My apologies. But the prospect is chilling so I threw them in to kick things off. Hope you’ll be back for our next installment.