Expert warns ‘not much we can do’ despite real threat of supervolcano eruption

Yellowstone supervolcano: Expert on ‘danger’ of Caldera in 2015

There are volcanoes and there are supervolcanoes: massive structures that spew out at least a thousand times more material than regular large volcanoes on eruption.

Supervolcanoes that have erupted in the past are today identified by large depressions in the ground known as “calderas”.

Eruptions at these sites, known as ‘supereruptions’, take place at intervals of tens of thousands of years, with the most recent event occurring at Taupo on New Zealand’s north island some 27,000 years ago.

While the chances of another supereruption in the near future are very real, some experts say there is little we could do to prevent the absolute havoc that would follow, and that many of the calderas aren’t even being monitored.

Professor Christopher Kilburn, a volcanologist at University College London (UCL), told that it was a “myth” that the world’s supervolcanoes were being watched by the appropriate authorities.

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Worryingly, he said, supervolcanoes are of such a size that it is near impossible to prepare against their eventual eruptions.

“When hazards like these things become so huge, you really can’t prepare very much, he said.

“We see with very large earthquakes, the best you can do is to try and build buildings that are unlikely to fall — but for the rest, what can you do?

“You just have to hope to god that when the earthquake strikes they stay up, but of course, we see around the world where buildings do inevitably collapse after regular earthquakes, but there are very few contingency plans after that: there are just emergency measures to help people.”

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These scenarios are bad enough when individual cities are struck by natural disasters. But with a supereruption at a site like the Yellowstone Caldera in the US, an entire country could be enveloped by thick smog and fine dust particles, placing it in a chokehold and pausing any normal way of life indefinitely.

“Imagine central parts of the US being knocked out of action, the wheat belt, all the agricultural producing areas would just be wiped out,” Prof Kilburn said. 

“It’s a huge task to think about, and what would the survivors do? Presumably, there would be huge migration to safer areas. Would those countries be able to accommodate those millions of people?”

There are hundreds of thousands of people living in the area that a Yellowstone eruption would immediately affect, and the estimated damage caused would total a staggering £7.4million in a country already economically ruined. 

The problem, Prof Kilburn said, is that there are currently no contingency plans in place that would look to overcome the effects of an eruption.

“A realistic version of what would happen in the aftermath is that we’d be running around like headless chickens,” he said.

“What would come after just can’t be anticipated. We can prepare as much as we want, but things will go wrong because we just don’t know what to expect with human reaction to something on such a large scale.

“Whole plans will collapse because some things won’t work as expected.

“Imagine if that’s something that is a thousand times bigger than anything that has happened before? It’s inconceivable to think of.”

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