If Yellowstone blows, then it will kill tens of millions.
The last three super-eruptions have been in Yellowstone itself. The most recent, 640,000 years ago, was a thousand times the size of the Mount St. Helens eruption in 1980, which killed 57 people in Washington. But numbers do not capture the full scope of the mayhem. Scientists calculate that the pillar of ash from the Yellowstone explosion rose some 100,000 feet, leaving a layer of debris across the West all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Pyroclastic flows—dense, lethal fogs of ash, rocks, and gas, superheated to 1,470 degrees Fahrenheit—rolled across the landscape in towering gray clouds. The clouds filled entire valleys with hundreds of feet of material so hot and heavy that it welded itself like asphalt across the once verdant landscape. And this wasn't even Yellowstone's most violent moment. An eruption 2.1 million years ago was more than twice as strong, leaving a hole in the ground the size of Rhode Island. In between, 1.3 million years ago, was a smaller but still devastating eruption.
Published January 19, 2011
Yellowstone National Park‘s supervolcano just took a deep “breath,” causing miles of ground to rise dramatically, scientists report.
The simmering volcano has produced major eruptions—each a thousand times more powerful than Mount St. Helens’s 1980 eruption—three times in the past 2.1 million years. Yellowstone’s caldera, which covers a 25- by 37-mile (40- by 60-kilometer) swath of Wyoming, is an ancient crater formed after the last big blast, some 640,000 years ago.
(See “When Yellowstone Explodes” in National Geographic magazine.)
Since then, about 30 smaller eruptions—including one as recent as 70,000 years ago—have filled the caldera with lava and ash, producing the relatively flat landscape we see today.