BRRR-BADABOOM! -- Countdown to Magmageddon

And you think the comet that wiped out the dinosaurs was quite something? Well -- it was peanuts, really. Some hundreds of millions of years earlier, a volcano did a much more thorough killing. And the bad thing is: the next supervolcano is about to go boom.

Think of every species of plant and animal you can think of. Now, imagine that nine out of then of them are no longer there. Not much left, right? Still, this is exactly what happened 248 millions of years ago, when the world was struck by the biggest natural disaster known in history. During the Permian-Triassic extinction, 90 to 95 percent of all species died out.

No-one really knows what sparked off the event. But according to the leading theory, the killer didn't come from outer space -- but from below, from underneath what is now Siberia. There, a disproportional big volcano popped up. It spewed out enough lava and gas to blow up the planet's climate and reset evolution.

Now there's volcanoes and VOLCANOES. In 1783, the Laki volcano in Iceland erupted, belching up almost five cubic kilometers of super hot lava. Nine thousand people perished on the spot, eighty percent of all livestock was killed, a quarter of Iceland's population was killed in the aftermath, and dust blocking the Sun pushed down temperatures several degrees on the entire northern hemisphere. Now, that's what a geologist would call a small volcano, a pimple popping open, really.

How different it was 65 million years earlier, when a volcano made a mess of what is now India. For several centuries in a row, the volcano pumped up something like 400,000 cubic kilometers of molten rock -- the Iceland eruption 100,000 times over! Some scientists still blame the volcano, and not the comet, for the extinction of the dino's.

Obviously, supervolcanoes can be, well, a little problematic. Ordinary volcanoes just pinch a tunnel in the Earth's crust. But a supervolcano is a completely different thing. A supervolcano is what happens when pressure builds up in an underground lake of magma. A supervolcano is much like a high-pressure balloon full of lava exploding. When it erupts, it really ERUPTS.

- 'Well... Fancied it would be worse than this'

(Cartoon copyright Exit Mundi/Matthias Giessen)

So, we'd run away, right? Hmm. If only it was that easy. An even bigger problem than the lava itself is the ash. 64,000 Years ago, a supervolcano made a mess of what is now the US. Of the current 50 states, 21 were covered with a layer of ash, at some places was over twenty meters thick!

Well, who cares, you might think - we'd just dust it away. But it isn't that simple. Volcanic ash is not like the ash you find on the barbecue: it is made of tiny pieces of rock. If it falls on your roof, your house can collapse under it's weight. If it gets into contact with cars or airplanes, they will break down or crash. Even worse, if you inhale it, the ash will mix with the liquids in your lungs and form a cement-like substance. You'll literally drown in conrete!

So you'd take a boat to another continent, right? Wrong. Apart from lava, volcanoes spew out a deadly brew of toxic chemicals. There are sulphurous gases that turn all rainfall into a blistering downpour of pure sulphuric acid for years to come. There are all kinds of chlorine-bearing compounds, that break down enough of the ozone layer to turn the Sun into a real killer. There's carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas that not only nibbles at the ozone layer, but also causes long-term global warming. And last but not least, there's soot. A super eruption will darken the Sun, and gradually push the Earth into nuclear winter. For many years, or even centuries, we will have to survive in darkness and cold.

Ok, we may be smart enough to escape from the lava and the ash, dodge the acid rains, survive the nuclear winter and protect ourselves against the killer solar radiation afterwards. But plants and animals definitely are not. We'd find ourselves in an increasingly empty world, as one species after another goes extinct. In the end, even the toughest survivalist would starve to death.

Ash attack! - A supervolcano would turn an entire continent into a poisoned, ash covered shadow world (still taken from 'Supervolcano' by the BBC)

In fact, 74,000 years ago, humanity almost did. In those days, a supervolcano erupted in Toba, Sumatra. Quite a lot of scientists believe this is what pushed humanity to the brink of extinction: it is a well-established fact that in those days, humanity suddenly was reduced to a slim total of some ten thousands of men.

Alright -- but that was a long time ago, you might argue. Well, here's some bad news. Geologists agree that another supervolcano will definitely show up sometime somewhere in the future. It's a bit inconvenient no one knows where it will happen -- or when.

But that's not even the worst part. If you still want to have a good night's sleep tonight, better stop reading here. For actually, the next Magmageddon is due to arrive any day now.

At this very moment, a well-known supervolcano broods its ugly plans right under beautiful Yellowstone Park. On average, the Yellowstone supervolcano erupts once every 600,000 years -  but the last time it erupted was 640,000 years ago. Oh, and by the way: in parts of Yellowstone Park, the ground has gone up seventy centimeters during the last century. Also, a lake has flooded, 

A consequence of some innocent magma flowing from one place to another? No one really knows. It seems the stage is set for a very nasty surprise.



Wyoming, USA: In 2005, the BBC broadcasted the dramatised series 'Supervolcano', about a not-too-fictional supervolcano eruption Yellowstone Park


Links out:

BBC Supervolcano

Yellowstone Volcano Observatory

The Lake Toba eruption


Notes and comments

22 feb 2001
subject: Permian-Triassic extinction
New evidence suggests that there may have been an asteroid involved in the Permian-Triassic extinction.
In the scientific journal Science, a team of US researchers led by Luan Becker report the finding of so-called fullerene molecules in geological layers connected to the extinction. These molecules are usually found in deep space -- so they must have been brought here by an asteroid, Becker argues. However, there's plenty of evidence a supervolcano did erupt in Siberia around that time, for one thing because there's lava all over the place. As Becker sees it, the Siberian eruption was perhaps triggered by this big comet slamming into the Earth. -
Submitted by Exit Mundi


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