The Debunker: Should We Freak Out about the "Supervolcano" Under Yellowstone?

by Ken Jennings

We usually think of volcanic eruptions as sudden and dramatic events, but that's not always the case. The Hawaiian volcano of Kilauea, for example, has been erupting continuously since January 3, 1983, covering 48 square miles of the state's "big island" with new lava. In honor of the thirty-fifth anniversary of Earth's longest-erupting volcano, Jeopardy!'s Ken Jennings will be here all month providing explosive corrections to a lot of popular misinformation about volcanoes. The results might just rock your world.

The Debunker: Should We Freak Out about the "Supervolcano" Under Yellowstone?

Pseudo-scientific fearmongering about the end of the world is nothing new. When Halley's Comet passed by us in 1910, for example, one French astronomer theorized that all life on earth might suffocate as we passed through the "cyanogenic gases" coming off the tail of the comet. Hucksters made tons of money selling anti-comet pills and elixirs and gas masks, which looks pretty silly in hindsight.

The Debunker

And yet, in the age of social media, this kind of mass hysteria can spike faster than ever. In 2014, a faulty Yellowstone seismometer began sending erratic and alarming data to a public viewer at the University of Utah, and suddenly the Internet was full of end-of-the-world paranoia. Rumors and conspiracy theories spread faster than seismic waves. National park officials had their hands full all year reassuring frantic callers and e-mailers that the tremors and geysers at the park—a very thermally active area—were perfectly normal and not a sign of the impending biblical Apocalypse.

"Supervolcano" isn't really a word that scientists use very much, because it has no special geologic meaning. The word caught on first with the public in 2005, when the Discovery Channel aired a disaster movie by that name imagining a future Yellowstone mega-eruption. TV movies don't get peer review, as Sharknado fans probably already know, but it's now deep in the public consciousness that the seemingly peaceful landscape of the American West conceals a ticking time bomb that is overdue to end civilization as we know it.

Will Yellowstone erupt again, as it has three times in the prehistoric past? Yes, very likely. There's a magma chamber about 37 miles long under the park, after all. But that doesn't mean it's time to go put on your "The End Is Night" sandwich board; the U.S. Geological Survey estimates the chances of an eruption in this century as roughly one in a thousand. An eruption on the Discovery Channel scale would certainly be disastrous for America, grounding air traffic, polluting and clogging waterways, and killing crops, but it wouldn't come close to ending life on Earth. With our climate changing, deadlier hurricane and wildfire seasons are the real natural-disaster dangers to America these days, but I guess it's harder to get those stories to go viral on Facebook.

Quick Quiz: What cartoon character lives in the fictional Jellystone National Park?

Ken Jennings is the author of eleven books, most recently his Junior Genius Guides, Because I Said So!, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.