The thought experiment: What would happen if the supervolcano under Yellowstone erupted?

Yellowstone National Park (USA) is located on top of an active super volcano that last erupted around 640,000 years ago. 

2nd September 2017
What would happen if the supervolcano under Yellowstone erupted? (Getty)

1. Earthquakes

Earthquakes image
© Raja Lockey

Months of earthquakes would culminate in a huge quake, creating fissures to the magma chamber 7km below. As pressure is released, gases dissolved in the magma come out of solution, turning the magma into a boiling froth.

2. Blastwave

Blastwave image
© Raja Lockey

The total energy released would be equivalent to an 875,000 megaton explosion. The shockwave would kill 90,000 people. Most of the lava would fall back into the crater. Any flows would be slow and only spread 40-50km or so.

3. Ash flows

Ash flow image
© Raja Lockey

More dangerous are the pyroclastic flows – clouds of dense, hot ash flowing outwards from the vent.

A 2016 study found that the flows would probably move at 16-72km/h. That’s slow enough that you could outrun the ash in a car.

4. Volcanic winter

Volcanic Winter image
© Raja Lockey

The US would be blanketed with ash – up to a metre deep in Salt Lake City. This would cause respiratory problems. Two hundred million tonnes of sulphur dioxide carried into the stratosphere would cool the climate for a decade.

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