Yellowstone Supervolcano Larger Than Previously Thought, and 8 Of The Most Destructive Volcanoes In History

Researchers from the University of Utah have announced that the magma reserves under the Yellowstone supervolcano are much larger than was previously assumed. (If you just said, “Wait! There is such as thing as a "supervolcano"??”, let me enlighten you: According to the BBC, a supervolcano is a massive volcano that “erupts at least 1,000 km3 of material,” which is about 1,000 times more than a large volcano. So, yeah, let that haunt your dreams forever.) Scientists already knew that Yellowstone lies on top of a magma chamber located three to nine miles below the Earth’s surface. According to CNN, this chamber is two and half times larger in volume than the Grand Canyon. An article published last week in Science reveals the startling finding that there is a massive magma reservoir below this chamber, and that the two areas together hold enough magma (aka, molten rock) to fill the Grand Canyon almost 14 times. That's A LOT of deadly, sizzling rock, guys.

Thankfully, this news does not mean that we’re any more likely to die in a fiery volcanic apocalypse. It just means that the fiery apocalypse that isn't going to happen would be a lot more fiery and apocalyptic if it DID happen. Which it won't. At least, no time soon. Speaking to CNN, researcher Robert B. Smith explains that "The actual hazard is the same, but now we have a much better understanding of the complete crustal magma system.” According to the U.S. Geological Survey, we’re not likely to have a Yellowstone eruption anytime soon; the University of Utah researchers behind the study say that the chances of an eruption are 1 in 700,000 annually. That’s a very good thing, because if Yellowstone erupted, the results would be devastating. Two previous eruptions of the Yellowstone supervolcano, occurring 630,000 and 2 million years ago, each covered a third of what is now the United States in a layer of ash.

To put the supervolcano's destructive potential into perspective, we can compare it to some of the worst previous volcanic eruptions in human history. I’ve listed eight of these below. Keep in mind that Yellowstone's eruption would be significantly worse than all of them. There are different ways that we could assess a volcano's destructiveness: the size of the blast, the number of people killed, the perimeter of the area affected, and how long the affects last, to name but a few. Whatever your criteria are, however, most would agree that these eight volcanoes are among the most destructive and deadly in human history:

1. Mt. Tambora

Robert Evans of Smithsonian Magazine names the 1815 eruption of Mt. Tambora in Indonesia as the most destructive explosion on Earth of the last 10,000 years. The explosion sent twelve cubic miles of gas and debris into the atmosphere, killing 10,000 people instantly, but eventually leading to the deaths of an estimated 90,000. For weeks after the eruption, ash rained upon the area, destroying sources of food and freshwater and leaving many to starve. The explosion took 4,000 feet off of the volcano, lowering it to 9,350 feet above sea level. The eruption had a significant effect of the climate in places as far reaching as Europe and North America; researchers have linked it to “the year without summer” in 1816, a year of unseasonably cool temperatures that led to crop failures in a number of different countries. The USGS claims that Yellowstone’s previous eruptions have outdone Mt. Tambora at least three times.

2. Krakatau

Like Mt. Tambora, Krakatau (also known as Krakatoa) is also located in Indonesia, in the Sunda Strait between the islands of Java and Sumatra. When the volcano erupted in August 1883, it sent gas and debris 15 miles into the air. The explosions were so loud that they were heard all the way in Perth, Australia, 2,800 miles away. The eruption killed an estimated 36,000 people; many of the deaths were due to a 120-foot high tsunami caused by the collapse of the volcano into the ocean.

3. Mt. Vesuvius

Mainland Europe’s only active volcano, Mt. Vesuvius was responsible for one of the most famous volcanic disasters in history: the destruction of the Roman city of Pompeii in 79 A.D. The eruption killed more than 16,000 people and buried Pompeii and Herculaneum in ash. The ash kept Pompeii well-preserved for over 1,500 years; Excavations of the city in the 18th century revealed buildings, murals, and household items. Excavators found layers of ash, with hollows left by decayed bodies. By injecting plaster into the hollows, they were able to reveal the exact positions in which many citizens died.

Mt. Vesuvius has erupted many times since 79 A.D., most recently in 1944. Volcanologist Bill McGuire, writing for The Guardian, argues that Mt. Vesuvius remains a major danger to the densely populated area surrounding the volcano. In the next blast, an estimated three million people may be affected.

4. Mt. Pinatubo

The 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo, a volcano located on the island of Luzon in the Philippines, was the second largest eruption of the 20th century. It sent ash 21 miles into the atmosphere, which spread into an ash cloud almost 250 miles across. The ash was so thick that many roofs in the region collapsed under the weight of it. The eruption caused global temperatures to drop by almost a full degree in the year following the blast. According to Live Science, the Pinatubo eruption killed a few hundred people initially, but over time, as rain mixed with ash, causing dangerous lahars (mudflows that travel down the mountainside), the death toll rose to more than 700. While 700 is no small number, the death toll was actually much smaller than it could have been. Careful monitoring of the volcano and a proactive evacuation plan saved at least 20,000 people.

5. Thera

According to Live Science, geologists argue that the eruption of Thera, a volcano located on the Greek island of Santorini, 3,500 years ago (somewhere between 1645 BC and 1500 BC) was “the single-most powerful explosive event ever witnessed.” The explosion of Thera was four or five times as powerful as that of Krakatau (see #2), carrying the energy of hundreds of atomic bombs. Researchers believe that the island was evacuated prior to the eruption, but its effects were felt long after: Some scholars argue that the eruption of Thera, and the resulting agricultural and economic hardships caused by tsunamis and layers of ash covering surrounding areas, led to the collapse of the once-powerful Minoan civilization, and thus altered the course of Western civilization for ever.

6. Mt. Pelée

When Mt. Pelée, located on the Caribbean island of Martinique, erupted in May 1902, it destroyed the city of St. Pierre, and its 30 thousand residents, within a matter of minutes. The eruption spared only one survivor, Auguste Ciparis, who was locked in a dungeon (he would later join the circus, posing in a replicated version of his jail cell).

7. Laki

The Icelandic volcano, Eyjafjallajökull, made headlines in 2010 when its eruption suspended air travel for a matter of weeks in Europe, but that explosion was nothing compared to the one that occurred in Iceland more than 200 years before: In 1783, Laki, a volcanic system in southeastern Iceland, erupted – and it would continue to erupt for a whopping eight months. The Laki eruption released huge quantities of sulfur dioxide into the air. The gas poisoned crops and livestock, leading to the deaths of one fifth of Iceland’s population due to starvation. The gases also formed a cloud that drifted over Europe, choking victims with a mixture sulfur dioxide and water. According to BBC News, the cloud led to the deaths of 20,000 people in Britain alone.

8. Nevado Del Ruiz

It was not the strength of its blast that made this Colombian volcano’s eruption so devastating — it was the lahars, or volcanic mudflows, that it created. When Nevado Del Ruiz erupted in November 1985, it created large, fast moving lahars that destroyed the town of Armero and neighboring villages, killing more than 23 thousand people.

Images: Wikimedia (8)