Researchers at Arizona State University have reportedly made a startling discovery, one that could have considerable implications for life on Earth as we know it. According to National Geographic, the team analyzed the minerals found in fossilized ash left over from the last time the Yellowstone super-volcano erupted, some 630,000 years ago. What they found is rather harrowing: The preconditions for an eruption can reportedly build up in mere decades, rather than centuries as had previously been believed. In other words, a Yellowstone volcanic mega-eruption could happen sooner, and with less warning than geologists once believed.
Although the team still needs more time and more research to determine precisely how long it could take for the massive volcano's chamber to fill with magma and pose an imminent risk of eruption, one of the graduate students involved, Hannah Shamloo, told The New York Times that the new understanding is startling.
"It’s shocking how little time is required to take a volcanic system from being quiet and sitting there to the edge of an eruption," Shamloo told the Times.
The impact of a Yellowstone eruption could be enormous. Scientists believe, in fact, that it could ultimately spew out a blanketing layer that would send the Earth into a volcanic winter, an explosion of more than 1,000 cubic kilometers of smoke and ash approximately 2,500 times more powerful than that seen after the eruption of Mount St. Helens 37 years ago.
The upshot, then, is that there's a potentially cataclysmic geological event that could take place much sooner than previously believed, one which may be difficult, if not impossible, to plan for in a way that would protect people's well-being. There are plenty of existential issues that humanity currently faces, of course, such as the ongoing impacts of climate change, for example. But this one is less predictable and more dramatically concentrated into a single, eruptive moment, and evokes a more apocalyptic sort of imagery.
According to the Times, University of California geochemist Kari Cooper ― who, to be clear, was not part of this latest Yellowstone research team ― noted how this discovery suggests a big change in how science views the urgency and swiftness of volcanic shifts at Yellowstone.
"It’s one thing to think about this slow gradual buildup — it’s another thing to think about how you mobilize 1,000 cubic kilometers of magma in a decade," Cooper told the Times.
It's not as if this is a situation the U.S. government's been totally neglecting or failing to prepare for, however. According to CBS News, NASA has actually been working on a plan to hopefully prevent the next Yellowstone mega-eruption, diffusing its explosive power through drilling down into the volcano and pumping water through.
As Brian Wilcox told the BBC, however ― he's a member of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory ― this idea carries risks, despite the potential short-term and long-term benefits. Namely, the process of drilling down into the volcano could trigger some hazardous events in and of itself. Wilcox said:
The most important thing with this is to do no harm. If you drill into the top of the magma chamber and try and cool it from there, this would be very risky. This could make the cap over the magma chamber more brittle and prone to fracture. And you might trigger the release of harmful volatile gases in the magma at the top of the chamber which would otherwise not be released.
In short, it sounds as if the people tackling this issue may have less time to come up with ideas and strategies than previously believed, increasing the urgency of the situation.