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A Surprise from the Supervolcano Under Yellowstone (nytimes.com)
115 points by mudil on Oct 11, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 92 comments

Caldera collapse volcanic eruptions the size of Yellowstone occurr at random intervals, not periodically every 100,000 years, as the article states. The last big one was the Toba eruption in Indonesia about 72,000 years ago. That one almost killed off the human race.

The Long Valley Caldera in California became more active in the 1970's. If this study's conclusions hold up under investigation and it only takes a few decades of activity before a "supervolcano" can erupt, we should monitor these caldera a bit more closely.

Wait, surely it's not entirely random? I thought we were talking about a process like earthquakes, where the actual event is unpredictable but the underlying causes add 'pressure' and gradually raise the odds.

Obviously that's predictability within a single supervolcano, not worldwide, but I'd love clarification if I've got that wrong.

The key point is:

> Caldera collapse volcanic eruptions the size of Yellowstone occurr at random intervals

Which I take to mean that there isn't enough data about exceptional events like this to reliably predict their timing.

The Yellowstone hotspot has produced dozens of super volcano eruptions over the last 16 million years or so. The time between them has been between 500,000 and a 1.5 million years or so. This hotspot is the most periodic on Earth and there is really no where else like it currently. Many caldera eruption locations have one or two eruptions and that's it. Like the Valle Grande in northern New Mexico.

So, in the Yellowstone case, it is reasonable to assume another one will happen and that the magma is "building up". And that it is more likely to happen soon, if it has not happened in a long while. On the other hand, I don't think we yet understand the mechanisms behind caldera eruptions well enough to say what will happen with much certainty. It is possible Yellowstone won't erupt again.

Earthquakes are much more predictable. There are hundreds of faults all over the Earth that each have a long history that can be determined by digging trenches across faults. Most are semi-periodic with repetition going back dozens of earthquakes.

Summary: super volcanoes can go from dormant to erupting in a human lifetime; previous estimates were it took much longer.

So, we need to be able to successfully establish a self-sufficient off-world colony in less than a human lifetime after we detect the events that precede a super-eruption. ;-)

Outlook not so good.

I see a new movie is about to be made.

There are already engineering plans to relieve the eruption. NASA has commented that a Super Volcano are a bigger threat than asteroids.

> But if more of the heat could be extracted, then the supervolcano would never erupt. Nasa estimates that if a 35% increase in heat transfer could be achieved from its magma chamber, Yellowstone would no longer pose a threat. The only question is how?


So, some drilling and pumping water through the drilled area would help? Putting a power plant on top would be an almost-free bonus.

Yeah, that's NASA's suggestion in the article.

The issue is next to nothing or no one lives within hundreds of miles of Yellowstone. Almost 90% of Wyoming and Montana has less than 1 person per mile density. Its beautiful but how do you deliver that energy?


That would be awesome. Even if we could somehow prevent loss of life and manage the fallout of a Yellowstone eruption, there would still be one really tragic casualty - Yellowstone itself. Maybe it would be replaced by something even better... eventually. But if it can be saved from super volcanic death, that seems like a really awesome thing.

Of course, then one has to wonder if that sort of interference in major geological processes will have some other bad side-effects in the future.

It is a great irony of life that such incredible beauty is the result of an event that nearly wiped out all life on earth (and threatens to do so again and again).

Some of my most vivid childhood memories are of a trip there. I don't remember much else about the trip but can still picture the amazing kaleidoscope of color and recall the smell of sulfur.

> Maybe it would be replaced by something even better

Endless free energy?

I guess you could transfer enough energy out from the borders of the chamber without affecting the rest of the place too much.

If it's SyFy making it, it'll also be a horrible movie.

I can't wait to see the obvious-CG-with-Voodoo2-era-textures eruption!

You just need to figure how to survive the volcanic winter. It's not like the magma is going to cover the entire surface of the Earth.

It'll provoke a mass extinction and make the maximum human population the Earth can support a fraction of what it is now. If the US government finds out Yellowstone is going to erupt in, say, 10 years, it'll have a strong pressure to invade territories considered safe in order to preserve its existence past the eruption. Also, wars to secure supplies for the designated survivor populations should be expected.

It wouldn't need to do any of that.

If a volcanic (or nuclear) winter occurs due to a massive eruption, the most straightforward technological solution to food production is to use methanotrophs to convert natural gas efficiently into food calories.

This is already done for animal feed by a company called Calysta, and in an emergency can be used for direct human consumption as well:


In cooperation with Cargill, Calysta is building a 200,000 tons per year methane-to-feed facility in the US. To feed 300 million people in an emergency, it'd take at least 300 of those facilities.

I believe the energy efficiency of methane (and ammonia) to food calories is approximately 50%. I will use a more conservative 30% efficiency to account for processing.

Human metabolism is ~100 Watts (2000kcal/day = 98W). US produces about 25 trillion cubic feet of gas per year (as of 2012), or about 850GW_thermal of gas. At 30% efficiency, that's equivalent to an ability to feed 2.5 billion people a 2000kcal/day diet. Global production works to 12 billion people at 2000kcal/day. We can do more by increasing natural gas production or using coal-to-gas technology (China would likely do that, in which case it could provide for its own population just fine) or harnessing methane clathrates, use nuclear power to produce methane and ammonia, etc.

People would likely have to live in better insulated and smaller (perhaps shared) houses due to colder weather, but using methanotrophic bacteria for fermentation-based food production would solve the food production problem, especially in a rich country like the United States that already has a lot of natural gas production.

So if we had a 10 year warning, the US could definitely prepare food production capable of working in deep volcanic winter. (The US is the greatest producer of natural gas with about 21% of global gas production, followed by Russia at 18%... the next highest is Iran at just 5%.)

If a volcanic (or nuclear) winter occurs due to a massive eruption, the most straightforward technological solution to food production is to use methanotrophs to convert natural gas efficiently into food calories.

Soylent Green is...Dinosaur Farts!!!

I think you misunderstood. Much of the US is within the blast radius of the volcano. Food production doesn’t matter if you’re under 100ft of magma.

People with in the blast radius will be escaping to somewhere.

The blast zone is pretty much just in 2 or 3 of some of the least populated states in the US. The US has plenty of land area. Magma (lava, in this case) is not a real concern for an eruption of this type, and you'd have to be nearly in the caldera to get anything like 100ft.

You'd want breathing masks, just like is already used in places that see regular eruptions. And crop failure in the Midwest is the major concern. Methanotrophs solve that.

The US has plenty of room.

Source: https://www.livescience.com/20714-yellowstone-supervolcano-e...

If we're not using the midwest for crops there's a lot of room there. Just in general, even in the most populous states, there's lots of room.

These things are frequent and don't cause 'mass' extinctions.

~1/100,000 years seems slow, but that's ~650 of them post dinosaurs.

It's not a concern if you're one of the species that will likely survive it.

Species survival says little about individual survival. I would assume the world population would drop significantly for most species.

If the population count of your species drops below the sustainable level in your immediate vicinity (within a reasonable distance for members of the species to meet & mate) then that pocket of individuals dies out. And then there's genetic diversity - the number I have heard quoted for humans is 40,000.

Which is how many people Elon Musk & Jeff Bezos would have to get to Mars or the Moon to create a genetically stable population.

Humans have unusually poor genetic diversity. It is estimated that this is from one or more recent bottlenecks where the population got very low.

We also have slow reproductive rates which make it harder to weed out genetic issues. Wild mice on the other hand can have stable populations from a very small number of random individuals.

But, again this just comes back to extinction, and super volcanoes don't kill off most species. Even though it may be a really bad time for the survivors.

If you've ever watched James Burke's "Connections" series (and you should - it's excellent), one of the things he mentions is that the introduction of the steam engine increased the genetic diversity in the UK, because now you weren't limited to dating people from your local town or village. You could be 50 miles away in less than a day and meet all-new people.

Sure, NBD. Just throw the chains on your truck-tires and wear a coat.

Can I ask, what is the intended communicative payload of the scare-quotes around 'mass'?

They do cause extinctions, possibly 10's of thousands, however extinctions are also common events as the background rate is ~1-5 per year. Right now we are around 1,000 - 10,000x that rate (as in several dozen per day) which very much qualifies as a Mass extinction when you add up the last 10,000 years.

Put another way, when 99.9% of species survive it's not a mass extinction. Remember, even if 99% of individual organisms die that's not necessarily fatal at the species level.

PS: The big 5 killed of ~70-98% of all species and even large ~17-57% of all families of species. That's hard to picture, but think not just all domestic cats, but also all tigers, lions, Jaguar, Leopard, Ocelot, lynx, Bobcat, Cheetah, Leopard, etc aka anything cat like as just one family.

Reminds me of the 'mind shaft gap' in Dr. Strangelove



Cheaper for everyone if the oligarchs just emigrate.


I wonder which of these two options scales better

Isn’t the problem that you need a way to deal with the ash produced?

That's a major part of it.

Globally, the problem is volcanic winter - ash in the upper atmosphere blocking out light and causing major cooling. The estimates I've seen suggest ~2 years of nonstop winter, followed by a gradual recovery.

But regionally, the problem is settling ash, which travels much further than larger debris. That blankets plants and kills them, as well as causing lung damage and suffocation sufficient to kill or sicken most animals in the area.

It's one of the reasons Yellowstone is particularly threatening - we can expect that the volcanic winter would start with the death of crops and livestock in one of the highest-export farming regions on the planet.

I'm curious - could a swarm of uavs with giant receptacles be able to reduce ash presence in the atmosphere.

The one bright spot I see is that you wouldn't actually need to fly around; something akin to flying windmill designs might suffice. I think there are at least three major problems here, though, each bad enough to sink the idea.

First: the last major Yellowstone eruption involved 240 cubic miles of debris. Even if that's only 1% ash, that's a basically prohibitive amount of volume to remove from the upper atmosphere.

Second: ash distribution is rapid and extensive. There's not enough ash in any one place to make cleanup runs effective overall, and distribution is too fast to clean a region persistently.

Third: volcanic ash is some of the nastiest, most machinery-hostile stuff nature produces. I would expect it to jam and corrode basically any moving πarts we can build, while also blocking out enough light to prohibit any kind of sustained solar flight.

Frankly, I don't think there is a good answer at the moment; the sheer volume of the stuff is beyond any sort of geoengineering we've seriously considered.

No. The size of swarm you'd need would entail a rather large environmental impact on its own.

Just construct a giant bowl on top of the volcano to collect the ash and lava.

I know, its supossed to be fun and games.. but drones with a binding agent.. Nanorobots reproducing on the ashes.. Triggering some atmospheric cleaning process.. There is a lot we dont know yet, we might be able to do..


I've got this bazooka bubblegum

Leave a shop vac turned on up there, we'll be fine.

"Summary: super volcanoes can go from dormant to erupting in a human lifetime; previous estimates were it took much longer."

This sounds very much like the beginning pages of seveneves[1] by Neal Stephenson.

It's a novel about what happens to people when an unexpected deadline is imposed upon them. Highly recommended.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seveneves

Even a "small" eruption of a super volcano will change the climate significantly for decades. This helps motivates Elon Musk's desire to be a multi-planetary species.

It is also why I advocate additional investment in engineering solutions to surviving climate change rather than focusing entirely on CO2 mitigation. We cannot prevent a super volcano from erupting.

One of the more interesting conjectures I've heard about climate change was the relationship of sea level to magma mobility. A paper looking at the effect of the Mediterranean ocean drying out and its impact on volcanic activity[1] describes a fairly local connection.

Such a mechanism could be used to explain a systemic recovery response of the planet from periods of high average temperature. Specifically the planet has gone through periods where it has been really warm and then really cold (ice ages) and back again to warm.

[1] http://www.nature.com/ngeo/journal/v10/n10/full/ngeo3032.htm...

> Even a "small" eruption of a super volcano will change the climate significantly for decades. This helps motivates Elon Musk's desire to be a multi-planetary species.

But even the biggest conceivable eruption will leave Earth infinitely more habitable than any other known celestial body.

Exactly. It would be far far easier to build self sufficient colonies in Antarctica, or under the ocean, or even remote deserts. We don't even have the technology to do that yet. They couldn't even get the biosphere to work.

Absolutely. We are already here.

Would life on earth exist if none of these super volcanoes had ever erupted?

That is, are the massive cooling effects and resulting changes to the environment required to balance natural warming?

Has anyone studied or attempted to model an earth without super volcanic events?

If the greenhouse effect did not exist, the average temperature of Earth would be -18C

So it's more correct to say that without the greenhouse effect, life would never exist on Earth, because plant life most certainly wouldn't develop in -18C and saturate the planet with oxygen.

Can there not be more than one parallel requisite for life to exist?

Like the presence of the moon, distance from the sun, etc.

> There, they hauled rocks under the heat of the sun to gather samples, occasionally suspending their work when a bison or a bear roamed nearby.

NYT is a horrible source for science news. Why were they hauling rocks and what did they do with their hauled rocks? I like bears and bison, but that doesn't seem important.

Another article, slightly more sensationalist but worth checking out, in my opinion:


Maybe I'm missing something, but the NYT article says they were hauling rocks "to gather samples" (of "fossilized ash deposit" for analysis). The next paragraph explains that they were looking for crystals in the samples because that can help give a timeline for relevant changes in the crystal's environment:

> Ms. Shamloo later analyzed trace crystals in the volcanic leftovers, allowing her to pin down changes before the supervolcano’s eruption. Each crystal once resided within the vast, seething ocean of magma deep underground. As the crystals grew outward, layer upon layer, they recorded changes in temperature, pressure and water content beneath the volcano, much like a set of tree rings.

It's true that this is not sufficient information to allow readers to replicate the analysis at home, but it seems like a good level of introductory detail so people can decide whether they want to follow the link in the NYT article to the volcanology conference.

Hauling rocks doesn't really impart a whole lot of information. If they are going to include a bit about hauling rocks, maybe tell us about it - instead of pretending it's a novel with bison and bears. You know, science journalism.

NYT is a lousy source for science journalism. How about what kind of rock? How about why they were moving rock (heavy?) instead of just taking small samples? Bison, bears, and the hot sun are prose for op-eds and novels, not an article about geology.

Heck, they could have skipped that whole sentence and it'd have been fine. I'm not outraged, it's just lousy science journalism that is an example of their continued low-quality reporting. It's just one more strike against them, so I figured I'd mention it and offer readers a second article - which wasn't much better but you can combine the two and almost have something worth reading.

All the journalist is doing is setting the scene for what it might be like to work in that environment and the sorts of activities the scientists are involved in, for the benefit of a general audience. Some readers might not know much about what it's like to work in a nature reserve, it clarifies that the rocks weren't necessarily taken from drilled samples. It doesn't take away anything from the directly relevant content about the science. I read articles like this with my kids sometimes, but even for me conjuring a sense of place is useful.

Now if the content about the science was wrong, or misleadingly simplified, that would be a valid complaint. The recently linked article on baryonic matter discovered between galaxies didn't clarify that it wasn't talking about dark matter, which a lay reader might have assumed. That was a valid complaint. But this just seems a bit silly to complain about.

I totally understand your point and agree, but these days I'm just glad to get through any article, anywhere, without glaring spelling, grammar and word usage errors.

If a science article in a major newspaper mentions actual methods used in a new line of inquiry at all, I consider it above average.

I'm retired but I am a scientist. I am technically a mathematician, but I still apply the method and use the philosophy of science in many areas of my life.

I say that because I think it gives some color to my next comment.

I have some very, very strong opinions about science journalism and the changes I've seen in the past thirty years. However, I fear my attempt to express those opinions would be sufficiently off-topic and incomplete, as my complaints are many, varied, and long.

There is still good science journalism, it exists. It just isn't all that popular. It is quite possible to have good science journalism that appeals even to moderately educated people. I know this to be true because I have seen it.

I often lament the death of the ideal which is that of the citizen scientist. It is through gritted teeth that I submit the ideal has been suplanted by citizen journalist. That is wonderful, at least in theory. However, it seems that it has resulted in fewer people paying for quality journalism and it also seems likely that this is a primary cause for the reduction in quality.

It doesn't help that the evening news now competes with reality television. In a world where deep thoughts are limited to 140 characters, sensationalism has prospered at the cost of depth.

I ain't even started... I can rant for hours about the state of scientific journalism, or journalism in general. The lack of quality editing only compounds it.

The effect this has had on education and scientific literacy is troubling. We have a populace that can more readily recognize a Kareashian than they can an equation. It isn't limited to one age group, side of the political spectrum, or the population densities of their respective communities. No, no it is not...

However, I suspect that my rant would just be preaching to the choir. I strongly suspect we are in full agreement.

I don't suppose you have a solution?

This is actually edited for brevity. I removed several paragraphs. They digressed too much, even for me.

If you can replicate vulcanology analysis at home, it's time to move. That's one career that shouldn't ever mind a long commute.~

I don't understand your critique. Spending a few extra characters to highlight how cool the scientific field work is seems like a fine thing for the NYT to do. Good for kids, young and old. Are you SURE you like bears and buffalo?

I don't think your link contains better science:

> A Yellowstone eruption would be absolutely devastating, covering half the Earth in an ash cloud that could trigger a nuclear winter.

I suppose _all_ winters are nuclear winters... from an atom's point of view.

My link was arguably worse. Combining the two made it tolerable.

Maybe my expectations for the NYT are too high but they did once have a very good science and technology section.

And yes, I like bears and buffalo. I do live in the woods for a reason. There are no buffalo but there are bears.

While I only highlighted the one sentence, most of the article was fluff. It's the science section, we don't need to set the scene.

As I said, I may just expect too much from them. Once upon a time, they were substantial and informative. They would have experts to explain things for a layperson. They'd have multiple sources for commentary and would make an effort to inform.

For better or worse, those days are behind us. It's not just this one article, or just that one sentence. I'm not mad, just disappointed.

Am I the only one irritated by the writer's use of "millenniums"?

Why irritated? It's one of two correct plural forms of "millenium."


That's literally[1] the worst argument ever.

[1] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/literally

All right, to spell it out: Merriam-Webster is not a dictionary of "correct" forms. The usage of "literally" in my post is documented in Merriam-Webster as "used in an exaggerated way to emphasize a statement or description that is not literally true or possible." It would be inappropriate to use "literally" in that way in a science article in the New York Times, because the standards for writing in the New York Times are different from the standards for inclusion in the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

Oh come now. You can't expect writers and editors for a company like The New York Times to know and use proper spelling and grammar, can you?

Seriously though. So annoying.

How dare they use an accepted form from Merriam Webster. (Personally I use millennia but if millenniums is accepted use in MW, that puts it well into the range of standard US usage.)

Has anyone heard of a study of how fracking and horizontal oil drilling in the states surrounding Colorado are affecting the caldera? I would imagine all of the seismic activity they cause would have an impact.

Say if the massive amounts of magma actually required to trigger these explosions were injected tonight what would the response be? Would we at least know this is happening?

We'd probably have some idea the race is on. Telltale signs like earthquakes, changes in caldera elevation, volcanic gas emissions and temperature changes would offer advance warning.

Here's the weekly report for the world's largest active volcano: https://volcanoes.usgs.gov/volcanoes/mauna_loa/elevated.html

>Would we at least know this is happening?

Lots of earthquake activity in the area, as I understand it.

Lots of smaller earthquakes is what to look for.

What about local changes in elevation? If there's a ton of new material in the crust would we observe deformation in the caldera?

Yes. In fact, scientists track the Yellowstone caldera's altitude and watch it "breathe", so to speak.


At first I thought, "Oh lord, this is going to be a terrifying surprise and/or new and horrific way to die, melt, and explode (not in that order)."

Colour me surprised!

The volcanic winter is not much better.

Colour me nothing because of the paywall

I picked the worst time to have a child.

Then again, I think you could reasonably say that at any point in the past hundred years or so, at least if you were living in America.

Would you rather have had a child in the 19th century, when job options for your potential child would have been limited to a) difficult farm labor, with long days, low pay, and poor working conditions, or b) difficult factory labor, with long days, low pay, and poor working conditions?

I wouldn't. But the problems of those times seemed to be on a much more human scale. Cholera might get her, or she might die in a mine, or be murdered by a nobleman in a drunken rage. Some of those things I can work to protect her against.

But a supervolcano is an inhuman threat. So is war, regular, nuclear or civil. So is climate change, if we're too late to stop its progress.

Right now is probably the safest time in human history wrt to dying in a war, on average. At least if you look at actual deaths, not potential ones from a nuclear war. Putting numbers to that last is difficult. If we assume the war is not between major powers with large numbers of nuclear weapons (i.e. assume North Korea, not Russia), then the potential death toll is in the millions to tens of millions and the probability is likely in the single digits at most, I would guess... But I welcome sources on good estimates for this.

On the other hand, in the 19th century diseases _would_ get about 1/4 to 1/2 (depending on what country you were in) of your kids before they turned 5. Check out http://www.gapminder.org/tools/#_state_time_value=1800;&mark... for example. And diseases were, at the time, very much an inhuman threat that you couldn't protect against; people didn't even have a very clear understanding of why they happened, much less what to do about it until the _end_ of the 19th century.

Dying in a mine or being murdered by noblemen isn't even a blip compared to dying of good old cholera, measles, typhus, etc, etc.

There was no time in history where it was a better time to have a child. You are attempting to draw distinctions, but you would have merely been worried about some other existential threat in the past, with the only exception being a blissful ignorance.

Natural disasters were always here. Wars and regional conflicts were just as plentiful and more deadly.

In this way, lucky for all of us that large wars are getting less frequent, and the amount of non-combatant casualties continues to drop. The amount of people who died in the american civil war and world war 1 & 2 is staggering compared to the loss of life in most modern conflicts.

I know this is a late reply, but after the 2016 election, I told myself that I wish I was born in the 1920s.

I think a timeline similar to the life of Shirley Temple would be perfect. You'd get to see all sorts of societal and technological advances and then pass away at a ripe old age before things get really bad.

Is anyone else tired of this style of headline? I know HN prefers the original headline, but when the original headline is clickbait-y, wouldn't it be better to change the HN headline to something that encapsulates the main idea of the link?

Now that my whining is out of the way: if we had a decade of warning, I'd hope that we'd be able to figure out some engineering technique for dissipating the magma chamber heat before a catastrophic eruption.

> figure out some engineering technique for dissipating the magma chamber heat.

There have been several proposals, some of which even allow for using the heat for generating electricity.

IIRC the problem with these approaches is that they take a few hundred years to be completed because you can’t simply drill the magma chamber but rather have to advance very slowly and carefully.

A few hundred years unfortunately seems to be too large a timeframe for politics to pursue this huge undertaking in earnest.

There is an enormous amount of heat stored in there and the amount to be extracted to make any significant difference is probably more than the entire planetary demand. The good news is that we don't need to drill to the magma chamber unless we want to also dig a lava channel to the nearest ocean (2300km if you don't feel like digging through mountains, or about 1000km to Oregon's coast if you are into digging), but just somewhere near that's hot enough to boil water at some pressure.

I don't see much support for doing it in a preservation area, however.

In CA, the heat could be used to power sea-water desalination, if someone is willing to build the large 270km long pipe.

Or a superconducting power line to the coast.

You'd need to convert heat into electricity for that. Not sure how efficient modern plants are, but if you pump sea water into the well to get steam, you can process the steam for desalination after it turns the turbines.

You'll need the pipes to send the salt water back into the ocean.

The HN guidelines specifically ask submitters not to submit baity titles: https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html.

In this case though I'd say we interpret 'linkbait' differently. The above title seems reasonable to me, though perhaps borderline.

Headlines such as this make me want to build a wall.

Not a practice I generally support in other contexts.

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