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mattbrowne's avatar

Should we fear supervolcanoes more than we fear meteorite impacts?

Asked by mattbrowne (31557points) May 1st, 2009

From Wikipedia:

A supervolcano can create a volcanic eruption which is substantially larger than any volcano in historic times (generally accepted to be greater than 1,000 cubic kilometers). Although there are only a handful of supervolcanoes, super volcanic eruptions typically cover huge areas with lava and volcanic ash and cause a long-lasting change to weather (such as the triggering of a small ice age) sufficient to threaten the extinction of species.

The Yellowstone Caldera is the volcanic caldera in Yellowstone National Park in the United States. After a BBC television science program coined the term supervolcano in 2005, it has often been referred to as the Yellowstone Supervolcano which is the volcanic field produced by the latest three supereruptions from the Yellowstone hotspot. The three super eruptions occurred 2.1 million, 1.3 million and 640,000 years ago.

Lake Toba is a lake and supervolcano in Indonesia, 100 kilometres long and 30 kilometres wide. It’s the site of a supervolcanic eruption that occurred 75,000 years before the present, a massive climate-changing event. The eruption is believed to have a Volcanic Explosivity Index intensity of 8 (on a scale of 1 to 8). This eruption, believed to have been the largest anywhere on Earth in the last 25 million years, may have had global catastrophic consequences; some scientists believe that this eruption may have wiped out much of humanity and may have created a population bottleneck that affected the genetic inheritance of all human survivors.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volcanic_Explosivity_Index

Is the next supereruption in Yellowstone overdue? Have we found all supervolcanoes on Earth? Do we pay enough attention to other supervolcanoes like Taupo in New Zealand? What about large calderas in Japan and Alaska? Are scientists too focused asteroids and comets? Should Hollywood explore topics beyond the scenarios as shown in movies like ‘Deep Impact’ and ‘Armageddon’?

Any opinions?

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21 Answers

YARNLADY's avatar

As I’m sure your research has shown you, measurements have shown that the Yellowstone Lake is rising, similar to a bubble, indicating pressure is building there. There is also similar activity in the Rose Mountain Area in the Sierras.

A super volcano could do massive damage. Even a less than super, but a severe eruption in the Cascade Range could cause destruction and the death of millions who live in the direct path of a future eruption.

Bluefreedom's avatar

Excellent details following your question. Going by what you wrote and not having any specific knowledge of volcanoes myself, it certainly seems plausible to be wary of Supervolcanoes. I’m only guessing but I think there are probably still unknowns about vulcanology itself so maybe too much worry might be a little premature?

Regarding meteorite impacts, the ones that make it through our atmosphere on a daily basis and impact the earth are negligible for the most part. There is speculation that we could one day get hit with a big one again like the massive object that hit the desert floor and created the huge Meteor Crater in northern Arizona. Something like that has the potential to be seriously cataclysmic. I think with so many observatories around the world, at least we could see a killer meteorite heading for earth and maybe make preparations. (As far as doing the whole drilling operation to plant nukes to blow it apart to save the earth like in the movies Armageddon and Deep Impact, probably not. Hollywood sure made it look cool though.)

As far as additional dangers from the earth and Mother Nature, California has been purportedly overdue for a very large earthquake for some time now and many have seen or heard or even experienced the massive damage those events can inflict. Not only in California either but other earthquake prone areas that dot the globe.

And finally, there are hurricanes and typhoons. One only has to look as far back as Katrina and New Orleans to realize the frightful potential of those storms and the havoc that they can create.

We humans might be at the top of the food chain but every once in a while, Mother Nature takes it upon herself to remind us that she can be completely unpredictable and astonishingly powerful by causing some kind of major event that demonstrates just how small and fragile our existences really are sometimes.

mattbrowne's avatar

Well, one relatively simple measure would be installing a network GPS receivers in all volcanic regions around the globe. They could serve as an additional early warning system. This is done in Europe and the US, see for example

http://volcanoes.usgs.gov/activity/methods/deformation/gps/index.php

But what about less developed countries?

Blondesjon's avatar

Aren’t we force fed enough fear in our daily lives? A super volcano eruption or a meteorite impact are events we have absolutely no control over. If it happens, there is no stopping it and what little we can do in the way of preparedness is negligible.

Why not focus on some problems we can address.

the volcanoes and the meteorite would suck equally. both spell apocalypse.

dynamicduo's avatar

I think fearing supervolcanoes and fearing meteorite impacts are both a bit silly and irrational. There are way more probable ways you will die than via the two listed here, not to mention there’s very little one person can do to avoid a meteorite impact.

It’s the same with swine flu now – everyone is worrying about it, but they aren’t worrying about the regular influenza which causes way more deaths per year!

Jayne's avatar

@Blondesjon- who taught you how to spell?! Neither “volcano” nor “meteorite” has a p, and “apocalypse” has two. Two! Dont even get me started about the “y”. You clearly have no idea what you’re talking about. Spell apocalypse! Honestly…

mattbrowne's avatar

@Blondesjon – We’re not completely helpless, so I’m not in favor of a fatalistic approach here. Earlier I mentioned GPS monitoring for volcanoes. Not all meteorite impacts will cause global extinctions. There are evacuation and shelter options. My question was about lopsided focus. I agree there’s not enough awareness about the potential of seasonal influenza.

Negative emotions and a well-developed limbic system have been a recipe for success in the evolution of mammals and in particular humans. Fear is one of the key primary emotions. What is also needed is our neocortex applying critical thinking. Worrying constantly is wrong and counterproductive and healthy humans actually don’t do that. Instead they engage in strategic planning. What happens if there’s another influenza pandemic? What are appropriate countermeasures? Are tsunami warning systems saving lives? Does it make sense to build tornado shelters and so forth. This has nothing to do with doom mongering. It’s about strategic planning. I think there’s nothing wrong to include volcanoes and meteorite impacts in our scenarios.

flameboi's avatar

should we fear at all about anything????

mattbrowne's avatar

@flameboi – Humans (unless they are heavily drugged) can’t turn off the brain. Fear is a primary emotion. All (filtered) sensory input goes to the amygdala which does check our hazard database. We can’t help it. It just happens. But we can interpret fear and draw useful conclusions, like supervolcanic eruptions and meteorite impacts are rare events. Or when you cross the street or climb into a car it’s far more likely that you get killed.

YARNLADY's avatar

@Blondesjon I don’t see planning ahead or using caution as forced fear. You don’t have fear anything if you don’t want to. See where sticking your head in the sand will get you.

Blondesjon's avatar

I guess I would prefer to see the money spent, on meteorite impact research and super volcano early warning systems, go toward something more pressing like cancer research or the study of alternate fuels. These are problems that are effecting us now.

Global catastrophes, like the ones mentioned in this thread, are unstoppable and uncontrollable. Cancer, pollution, fuel shortages, homelessness, world hunger, and male pattern baldness are just a few of the problems we can fix.

I’m not sticking my head in the sand. I’m just choosing to not worry about something I cannot control.

YARNLADY's avatar

@Blondesjon I should have deleted that ‘sand’ part. Sorry. I use a search engine that donates money to the charity of my choice, and there are nearly 80,000 charities listed. I looked on another “your favorite cause” site, with similar results.

However, an early warning device could save millions of lives. That horrible killer tsunami in Indonesia could have been less murderous with a warning system. Funding multiple research projects should not be an issue. Also, some projects often come up with solutions to others problems almost by accident.

Blondesjon's avatar

@YARNLADY…I agree wholeheartedly that warning systems for localized events are a fantastic idea.

I just believe that the logistics of, say, a mass evacuation, should Yellowstone erupt, are beyond us.

I feel the money would be better spent elsewhere.

no apologies necessary…i tend to have that effect on people

Krag's avatar

Is fearing them going to stop them? If it happens it happens. Why sit around worrying about what we can’t control. There are so many things we can control but don’t

YARNLADY's avatar

On the news today, some NASA scientists are looking in our area for some meteorites they say might have fallen nearby.

mattbrowne's avatar

@YARNLADY – What did the scientists find?

YARNLADY's avatar

@mattbrowne Nothing reported so far. The notice that they are starting to look was just published yesterday.

YARNLADY's avatar

“Meteorite Men” is on Discovery Channel today, May 9, 2009

YARNLADY's avatar

Correction: Meteorite Men is on at 9 pm Sunday May 10, 2009

CaptainVolcano's avatar

We are all going to DIE!!!

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