In what life was probably like prior to the coming of the year 2000, every man and his dog is coming up with a theory for how the Earth will end come 2012. After already curbing fears that a giant “killer solar flare” will wipe out planet Earth next year, NASA has again weighed in, this time explaining that a supervolcano will not have a supereruption during 2012.
Probably. Let’s get to that later.
Supervolcanoes and Supereruptions
The terms ‘supervolcano’ and ‘supereruption’ are not necessarily words that the scientific community like using, but they’re vivid and therefore the media love them. Geologists have begun using the terms, however, to describe volcanoes whose eruptions are about ten thousand times as explosive as that of Mount St. Helens.
Mount St. Helens erupted on Sunday, May 18, 1980, in Washington state, America. The eruption had been preceded by two months of earthquakes and steam-venting episodes, and the eruption released an eruption column 80,000 feet high and deposited ash over 11 U.S. states. The eruption caused snow, ice and several entire glaciers on the volcano to melt, causing volcanic mudslides that managed to reach as far as Columbia River, nearly 80 kilometres away.
And all of that does not even begin to come near what a supereruption is capable of.
Mount Toba in Sumutra is believed to hold the record for largest eruption ever, though determining such a thing to any specific degree of accuracy 74,000 years later is a tricky thing. It is estimated that 2,800 cubic kilometres of magma was deposited by the eruption and a thick layer of ash was deposited all over South Asia.
For comparison, another massive eruption – the infamous Mount Krakatau, which erupted in 1883 and is the largest ever volcano to erupt in recorded history – only managed to deposit 12 cubic kilometres of magma.
Across the entire surface of our planet there is evidence of previous supereruptions having taken place: massive blankets of ash cover many continents, and enormous hollowed-out calderas located in Indonesia, New Zealand, the United States, and Chile serve as massive reminders of the explosive power of our planet.
For example, Yellowstone National Park is home to the Yellowstone Caldera which measures in at about 55 to 72 kilometres. In fact, Yellowstone National Park is actually home to at least three overlapping calderas, as can be seen in this United States Geological Survey map.
2012 and the Likelihood of Supervolcano Death
Turning to look at whether 2012 is going to end in a fiery and ashy death, NASA suggests that no, it probably won’t. In fact, they describe the chances of this happening as “vanishingly small.”
For your consideration, the most recent supereruption, Taupo Volcano, took place in New Zealand some 26,000 years ago, which was preceded by the Mount Toba eruption another 50,000 years earlier than that.
In fact, scientists have only found the remnant of approximately 50 supereruptions – though they continue to look – which equates, according to one group of scientists, to approximately 1.4 supereruptions every one million years.
Not to say that they take place that regularly – one need only look at the evidence for Taupo Volcano and Mount Toba – nor is there any current evidence to suggest that the volcanoes cluster together.
There is currently no real way to determine when a supervolcano will erupt, but scientists keep a very close watch on volcanic activity around the world and, so far, there’s absolutely no sign that we’re going to go up in a fiery ball of supervolcanic magma.