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.

Volcanic activity on Io sends plumes up to 250 miles into space.

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.


Imagine this magnified a million times

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.

Nature. More fucked up than any story you've read.

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.


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KQµårk 死神

Good info. Plate tectonics and mass extinctions are two of my fav subjects. The supervolcanoes happened 2.1MM, 1.3MM and 640K years ago so doing the maths I can’t figure out how some people think we are do for a supervolano in Yellowstone. Seems to me we have at least 60K more years to go. Even after the caldera was rising quickly from 2004-2008 the uplift almost stopped since then or at least is much smaller.

Our demise will be slow and most likely be due to man made climate change that’s disrupting thermohaline circulation which will result in a Dansgaard–Oeschger event cycle or something like the Eocene–Oligocene extinction event.

In fact there are theories where man caused the last extinction 50k years ago by either over hunting or spreading disease know as the Quaternary extinction event.

I think modern man is causing mass extinctions as we speak with pollution and over population and the last hundred years climate change.


Hi KQ! I’m happy to know that the floor of the caldera has stopped rising for now. That was just a mite worrysome! It may be that the program I saw on Discovery Channel was an older one with no up-to-date information. They did, however, stress the point that we were overdue for another eruption, having estimated the dates of previous ones. I am not particularly relieved though…I don’t think volcanoes set their timers to go off exactly when we expect them to. 60,000 years, give or take a few thousand, is a drop in the bucket in terms of geological time spans.

I hope you are right about our slow demise. Maybe people will wake the hell up before it is past that tipping point the scientists talk about. I’m afraid your “Dansgaard-Oeschger event cycle” is jut a little over my head…but that’s what they made Google for!

ADDENDUM; Oh, the Google gods have answered my prayer! I understand now! 🙂

KQµårk 死神

I’m optimistically roughly splitting the time between the two since one event happened 800K years apart and that other 660K years.

I’m not saying we should not monitor it closely but I think we’ll see more alarm bells go off than a normal volcano.


Adonai, that was really informative! This is a subject I have been interested in for quite some time. I saw a Discovery Channel program on Yellowstone and it was scary at best.

According to the scientists, we are past due for an eruption there. One of the ways they determine movement of the magma is to measure the elevation of the ground. It seems that recent measurements show that the floor of the Yellowstone caldera has risen about 4 inches, a rather drastic rise. This would indicate that the magma is pushing toward the surface. As you point out, if this happens, we are toast…literally and figuratively!

I don’t know if the Discovery Channel was just trying to scare us out of our wits or not, but they showed an even more drastic map on the effects of the ash with significant amounts falling over the East Coast of the US. The long-term effects would kill off most of us.

Well, there is not much you can say about this. If it happens, it happens and there is nothing we can do to stop it. Just remember…December 21, 2012 is not far away!

Thanks for the article! I will definitely be back for the second installment, that is, if the Yellowstone Super Volcano doesn’t erupt before you get it done! 🙂


There used to be an old margarine commercial that stated that their margarine tasted just like butter. A woman in ancient garb portrayed Mother Nature. She takes a bite of bread with this “miracle margarine and really seems to enjoy it. Then she finds out it is not really butter. She very sternly says Ït’s not nice to fool Mother Nature,” with lightning and thunder crashing in the back round.

I always think of that old commercial every time I see or read stories of extreme natural events. I guess it doesn’t get more extreme than a super volcano. I don’t know that it would be the end of human existence, but it would sure come close.

I’ve heard that when Mt. St. Helens exploded, that the explosion was equal to 500 Hiroshima type bombs. The power in Nature is really unfathomable to us little humans. Whew!

Nice article Adonai!


Of course, compared to Krakatoa, this was a popcorn fart!


Nice article, Adonai. I especially liked your quip:

“We would be starting all over again. Much of the world would be. And maybe we’d get it right this time.”


CAru – I thought about that. Getting it right this time.



Wow, Adonai. Scarily impressive analysis!

We’ve see the impacts of the 1815 eruption of Mt. Taboura in Indonesia that sent so much ash into the atmosphere it spawned “The Year without a Summer”. That created such cold that there were major food shortages that also led to social movements that challenged capitalist markets and agricultural wage-based production throughout Europe. Other volcanoes preceeded Mt. Taboura, and the combined results were devastating to human,plant, and animal life for over two years.

This scenario you’ve painted sounds even worse. We saw a taste of it in 1992 when Mt. Pinatubo erupted, and that had far less yet significant impacts on harvests and climate.

It’s not beyond the pale to see how such global volcanic winters could destroy life as we know it for years – and lead the religious zealots to demand control as such people have done for all of human history. It may be of less significance to us materially than it would be politically as self-appointed high priests demand control to appease the volcano gods once again.

Let’s hope this does NOT happen anytime soon until we can re-establish some form of intelligent reliance on good democratic government and tame the zealots among us now. I’m not excited about the return of theocracy as a way of dealing with natural events. I’d rather have to rely on hothouse local production than turn our lives over to them. THAT is truly scary!