Good news, people! Scientists have discovered that "the Yellowstone super-volcano is a little less super than previously thought". Bad news, people! The Yellowstone super-volcano is "more active than previously thought". So it's closer than you think.
According to the the researchers from Washington State University and the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre, the next eruption may not wipe out half of the United States, covering the other half in a metre of ash — according to a previous study from the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters — and pushing the world into hundreds of years of nuclear winter, challenging human civilisation to a game of death and survival.
But on the other hand, as Ben Ellis — co-author and post-doctoral researcher at Washington State University's School of the Environment — says, "the Yellowstone volcano's previous behaviour is the best guide of what it will do in the future. This research suggests explosive volcanism from Yellowstone is more frequent than previously thought."
Their new research shows that what scientists thought was Yellowstone's biggest eruption, the origin of the the two-million-year-old Huckleberry Ridge deposit, was actually two eruptions 6000 years apart from each other. They used a new high-precision argon isotope dating technique to find this difference. This technology, says co-author Darren Mark, is "like getting a sharper lens on a camera. It allows us to see the world more clearly."
The result is that the first eruption that created Huckleberry Ridge was "only" 2200 cubic kilometres, roughly 12 per cent less than what geologists thought. Then a second eruption happened 6000 years later, adding the remaining 290 cubic kilometres.
For comparison, Mount St Helens produced one cubic kilometre of ash in its 1980 eruption. And the latest comparable eruption registered in the United States were the 116 cubic kilometres of ash produced by Mount Mazama in Oregon, 6850 years ago.
Somehow, the idea of the Yellowstone super-volcano eruption being 12 per cent less powerful than previously thought but more frequent doesn't make me feel much better.