There will not be a Supervolcano eruption in 2012

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There are no supervolcanoes due to erupt in 2012

One of the commonly cited disaster scenarios in the 2012 hoax is a supposedly predicted supervolcanic eruption of the mammoth Yellowstone caldera system in Wyoming. While such eruption would be the greatest natural disaster in recorded history, there is no evidence that such an event is going to occur in the life time of 2012 apocalypse mavens.

Volcanic Eruptions: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

There is a common misconception that all volcanoes (and all volcanic eruptions) are created equal. This patently wrong. Confusing the violent ash-filled eruption of the Mt. St. Helens stratovolcano in 1980 (a so-called explosive eruption) with the frequent sputtering of fluid basaltic lava associated with the Hawaiian shield volcanoes (called an effusive eruption) is like confusing a pit bull with a Chihuahua. Volcanoes and their associated eruptions differ in size (of both the volcano and the amount of material released) as well as the types of material the volcanoes are built up from (and hence emit) [1]. Some volcanoes are mainly messy (like the Hawaiian ones) but can certainly destroy structures in the path of their rivers of lava. In contrast, the most destructive volcanoes are those that erupt violently, spewing huge clouds of ash and rock fragments (pyroclastics) as well as poisonous gases into the atmosphere [2]. These materials can get caught up and carried around the world via air currents, resulting in worldwide effects.
The size of an eruption is denoted by its magnitude, measured by the estimated mass of the materials released. For example, the 1980 Mt. St. Helens eruption had a magnitude of 5, meaning it released more than 1 trillion kilograms of material. In contrast, the 1883 Krakatoa eruption was a magnitude 6 (with more than 10 trillion kilograms of product). Geologists estimate that there are, on average, about 20 and 2 such eruptions per century (respectively), making them not uncommon [3].


The largest of all volcanic eruptions are termed “supervolcanoes”, a term made famous in the 2000 BBC documentary of the same name. Such an event would have a magnitude of 8, emitting more than 100 trillion kilograms of material. At present, 47 “supervolcanoes” (volcanoes that have had magnitude 8 eruptions in the past) are known, the most famous being the Yellowstone caldera system. Geologists estimate that a supervolcanic eruption occurs somewhere on earth about once every 300,000 years. Therefore, there is a negligible chance of it occurring in your lifetime [4]. The youngest well-documented supereruption was that of Oruanui in New Zealand about 26,000 years ago. However, knowing when past supervolcanic eruptions occurred is of little value in predicting the next one, since there is no evidence that there is any periodicity of such eruptions. Therefore, we should just understand that they are very rare and there is no evidence that we are “due” for one [5]. In addition, just because a volcano has had a supervolcanic eruption in the past does not mean that all future eruptions will be of the same scale.

The Effects of a Supereruption

We are quite fortunate that these events are rare, because their destructive power rivals a nuclear war (in both energy released and aftereffects). The BBC documentaries Supervolcanoes (2000) and Supervolcano: The Truth About Yellowstone (2005) vividly portrayed the effects such an event would have on our modern world, and to say it would not be pretty would be an understatement. Measurable amounts of ash would fall thousands of miles away, and near the volcano the amount of ash and pyroclastic rock would collapse roofs, block the intakes of machinery (importantly including facilities such as water filtration plants and power plants) and create significant dangers for aviation (as was seen in the 2010 eruptions of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull). Agriculture would also be affected, first negatively (as crops would be damaged or buried) but ironically the ash will nourish the soil and future harvests would be improved. People hundreds of miles from the volcano could also suffer health problems from breathing in the ash and gases. If the eruption occurred near an ocean, a devastating tsunami could result, and, as in the case of the 1980 Mt. St. Helens eruption, huge, fast-moving rivers of mud (ash mixed with melted snow and/or condensed steam from the volcano) called lahars can devastate hundreds of square miles of the landscape. Because volcanic ash and emitted gases (most notably sulfur gases) travel the globe through upper level air currents, there would also be significant global effects. As demonstrated in the years following the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines, huge volcanic eruptions cool the atmosphere by both reflecting sunlight back into space and absorbing some of it. There would also be further depletion of the ozone layer. A supervolcanic eruption would therefore cause serious disruptions in travel, communication, and food production, kill untold numbers of people, and create billions (if not trillions) of dollars in damage. It would not, however, destroy the planet, or cause the extinction of the human race (as our ancestors have clearly weathered such events in the past). Because such events cannot be stopped, geologists closely monitor supervolcanoes for signs of activity and have produced lengthy reports detailing the impact of such eruptions on the global economy [6]. The bottom line is that there are no signs that any known supervolcano (including the Yellowstone caldera) will erupt in the near future.

Yellowstone: The Big Picture

The Yellowstone caldera system is one of the largest volcanic structures in the world, and has been likened to a sleeping giant. Visitors flock to Yellowstone National Park in part because of its unique volcanically-modified landscape and hydrothermal activity, including the famous geyser Old Faithful. The past major eruptions of the Yellowstone system were certainly impressive (and destructive). Of the three major events uncovered by geologists, one was magnitude 7 (1.3 million years ago) and the other two (2.1 million years ago and 630,000-640,000 years ago) magnitude 8 (in the supereruption range). In fact, the first supereruption is considered one of the five largest known events anywhere in the world [7]. Note that there is no apparent pattern in the timing of the eruptions, therefore, the idea that we are somehow “due” for a supereruption of Yellowstone is false. Interestingly, the date of the last major eruption is probably the source of the reference to a special alignment happening every 640,000 years in the infamous Charlie Frost animation produced for the tie-in marketing of the 2012 film. Among the numerous exaggerations depicted in the film 2012 was the measurable ashfall seen in Washington D.C following a supereruption of Yellowstone. In past supereruptions such ashfall was limited to west of the Mississippi, as seen in this map. Much smaller, non-explosive eruptions of lava have also occurred, the most recent about 70,000 years ago.

Is Yellowstone Set to Erupt Again?

Due to its past supereruptions, and the fact that because it is located in North America (and hence has the potential to directly impact millions of people), Yellowstone is one of the most closely monitored volcanic systems in the world. The Yellowstone Volcano Observatory (YVO) was formed in 2001 by the U.S. Geological Survey, Yellowstone National Park, and the University of Utah in order to coordinate the monitoring of activity at the park and make data available to both professionals and the general public in real time. The YVO has also prepared a publically available, detailed document laying out the protocol to be followed in the event that significant activity, including “large earthquakes, earthquake swarms, hydrothermal (steam) explosions, and unusual toxic gas emissions,” is detected [8]. Yellowstone is currently an active geological area (as noted by its geysers), with small earthquakes and swarms of earthquakes common events. Since such swarms are common, their occurrence should not be taken as a sign of imminent doom, as is commonly done by 2012 hoax purveyors. There has also been natural uplifting and subsidence of the caldera floor since the last lava eruption, of as much as a few meters [9]. Current motion can be monitored using satellites, and is now in the range of a few millimeters. To put this into perspective, at the time of the past supereruptions it is estimated that the uplift was on the order of 100s of meters if not kilometers [10].
Even if there was evidence that Yellowstone was becoming volcanically active, the odds are that it would produce a lava eruption like the one that occurred 70,000 years ago. This would cause damage to the National Park itself (especially the roads and forest), but little else of note [11]. A large hydrothermal explosion is also possible, since the largest such crater known anywhere in the world (1.5 miles wide) is found in the park as well. Although the exact trigger for this event (which occurred 13,800 years ago) is not known, such a hydrothermal event would not cause a volcanic eruption. According to the USGS, “none of the large hydrothermal events of the past 16,000 years has been followed by an eruption of magma” [12]. The USGS also maintains a FAQ page that addresses many common concerns about Yellowstone’s future activity.

What About Other Supervolcanoes?

Although there is no evidence that an eruption of Yellowstone will occur in the near future, 2012 doomsday purveyors continue to argue to the contrary. They have also latched on to a number of other supervolcanoes, in part due to sloppy or misleading reporting. For example, an article in the prestigious journal Science about the North Korean volcano Mount Paektu entitled “Vigil at North Korea’s Mount Doom” was not about some imminent eruption, but rather about an international monitoring program being established on the mountain and the political difficulties of setting up the system [13]. Geologist Eric Klemetti notes on his blog that this volcano is “possibly second only to Yellowstone in its appearance in fearmongering” and that it “tends to get more attention than it deserves” [14]. In another post, Klemetti debunks online articles claiming that the Laacher See volcano in Germany is getting ready to erupt. Therefore, as in the case of other aspects of the 2012 hoax debunked on this website, people should not take what they read in the popular press at face value, but instead dig deeper (pun intended), reading past the headlines and being critical about what is being claimed.

The bottom line is that there is no evidence that the Yellowstone caldera or any of the other 47 known supervolcanoes will erupt in the near future. While these natural formations certainly deserve our respect, we should not waste our time sitting in a cement bunker fearing them, but rather walking in national parks enjoying their unique beauty.

KL 7/18/12

1. For an overview of different types of volcanic eruptions, see
2. For an overview of volcanic hazards, see
3. S. Self, “The Effects and Consequences of Very Large Explosive Volcanic Eruptions.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A 364 (2006): 2075.
4. Self (2006): 2075.
5. C.F. Miller and D.A. Wark, “Supervolcanoes and Their Explosive Supereruptions.” Elements 4 (2008): 14.
6. See Self (2006) and S. Sparks, S. Self, et al. Super-eruptions: Global Effects and Future Threats. London: Geological Society of London, 2005.
7. J.B. Lowenstern, R.L. Christiansen et al. “Steam Explosions, Earthquakes, and Volcanic Eruptions – What’s in Yellowstone’s Future?” USGS Fact Sheet 2005-3024, 1.
8. Yellowstone Volcano Observatory, Protocols for Geologic Hazards Response by the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory. Reston, VA: U.S. Geological Survey, 2010, 4.
9. C.W. Wicks, “Uplift, Thermal Unrest and Magma Intrusion at Yellowstone Caldera.” Nature 440 (2006): 72.
10. Oregon State University, “Scientists Find Possible Trigger for Volcanic ‘Super-eruptions’.” October 12, 2011.
11. J.B. Lowenstern, R.L. Christiansen et al. (2005): 3.
12. USGS, “Hydrothermal Explosions.” March 1, 2012.
13. Richard Stone, “Vigil at North Korea’s Mount Doom,” Science 334, 584-8.
14. E. Klemetti, “When Will Baekdu Caldera Erupt (or How to Misuse Volcanologic Data), May 21, 2012.


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