Yellowstone Supervolcano may lead to nuclear disaster

Update 1-6-09: Only 1 quake today. It seems the super volcano god has been appeased … for now.

Update: Small quakes at Yellowstone continue, I count 13 so far…no, make that 14 today.

An eruption of the Yellowstone super volcano could cover 1/2 of the USA with ash, and cause extreme global cooling. The disaster might be unmatched in known history, but worse, it may trigger  nuclear melt downs according to Tom Lakosh at newsblaze. Ash may cause a few decades of damage, but nuclear meltdowns due to ash-clogged cooling systems could cause damage that lasts hundreds of years, Tom warns.

As I looked at the maps, I noticed that the states most damaged may be those that previously supported Bush. Just an odd coincidence, I’m sure.

According to this educational link, most of California could eat dust too.

We have learned some things about cleaning up volcanic ash. Wet sawdust helps, for example.

The Yellowstone eruption damage predictions range from billions dead around the world to no casualties at all because we will have decades, even centuries of warnings, and plenty of time to prepare.

The mega-eruption, if it happens, could be *hundreds of thousands* times bigger than Mount St. Helens. The last super volcano was 75,000 years ago. Light was blocked out all over the world. 35 centimeters of ash fell *2500 miles* away. The global temperature plunged 21 degrees. Mankind was almost extinguished, cut back to only a few thousand. This one…could be *ten times bigger*.

… The Toba eruption is generally thought to have been larger than any of the Yellowstone eruptions. The largest Yellowstone eruption was pretty close, though. Source: [] – slashdot

Here is more information on the nuclear meltdown danger:

It’s not that there’s been ~ 300 quakes since Saturday or even that they’re all within a mile or two of each other, the worrisome part is that they are all within a few hundred yards of each other vertically, extending from the surface down to 7.2 km potentially defining a single “chimney” under high pressure causing hydraulic fracturing along its entire length, (link).

The National Park Service reports the magma chamber is as shallow as 8 km and if the major chamber is that close to the chimney reaching to 7.2 km, we may be in for an eruption.  …

The safety of containment of radioactive materials is threatened because nuclear power plants will not have sufficient clean water reserves to maintain extended cooling of reactor cores and spent fuel pools after ash deposition contaminates all surface waters. All downwind plants will have to immediately suspend operation of their secondary cooling loops to prevent disabling erosion of all moving parts and piping by the ash in their normal water supply.

The remaining ~7% of reactor thermal output retained in the latent heat of radioactive decay in fuel rods will require use of reserve water supplies for emergency core blow downs that were never intended to supply enough water for the extended periods of time that ash could fall and otherwise contaminate surface cooling water from rain runoff.

Moreover, these reserve water pools are already providing cooling for spent fuel rods which could also melt if their water is consumed for blow down steam replacement. The use of ash-contaminated water for primary loop cooling poses the same problems of pump and pipe erosion and accumulation of sediments in the core would cause water circulation problems that could lead to fuel assembly overheating. The air filtration systems in containment buildings were also not designed to stop release of nuclides under near continuous and extended blow down circumstances.

It is imperative that the NRC immediately coordinate with DHS/USCG for emergency acquisition of all available water tankage to store uncontaminated water, or settle and filter contaminated water, for extended use by nuclear facilities. DHS should also consider seizure of all drilling equipment, (operation of any engine in ambient ash will be limited), to supply ground-filtered water to power plants and the public, (ash is so fine that filtration of any type will be very limited, particularly where air and water filter replacement will be limited).

This will also necessitate insuring that all required tank trucks, transport trucks, barge tugs and tank vessels have sufficient spare air filters, water pumps and pump impellers. While prior lack of planning may be excused due to the improbability of such an event, the ongoing events at Yellowstone Lake demand immediate attention to this potential catastrophe beyond anything experienced in recorded history, which could be devastatingly compounded by our failure to stockpile sufficient clean cooling water for reactors. … – newsblaze

Unrelated to the nuclear threat, here are some recommendations from the army  regarding what you should do at home in the event of an ashfall:


  • Close doors, windows and dampers. Place damp towels at door thresholds and other draft sources; tape drafty windows.
  • Dampen ash in yard and streets to reduce resuspension.
  • Put stoppers in the tops of your drainpipes (at the gutters).
  • Protect dust sensitive electronics.
  • Since most roofs cannot support more than four inches of wet ash, keep roofs free of thick accumulation. Once ash fall stops, sweep or shovel ash from roofs and gutters. Wear your dust mask and use caution on ladders and roofs.
  • Remove outdoor clothing before entering a building. Brush, shake and pre-soak ashy clothing before washing.
  • If there is ash in your water, let it settle and then use the clear water. In rare cases where there is a lot of ash in the water supply, do not use your dishwasher or washing machine.
  • You may eat vegetables from the garden, but wash them first.
  • Dust often using vacuum attachments rather than dust cloths, which may become abrasive.
  • Use battery operated radio to receive information.

Wet ash is heavy! Got a ladder and a shovel for your roof? Battery powered radio? (I just got this one because it can charge my cell phone from solar or the crank in addition to battery power, short wave, am, fm, etc.).

A Yellowstone super volcano eruption could make us wish for the good old days when terrorists destroying a few big buildings in New York was our biggest problem. Then again, it may not happen for a million years. No one knows.


  1. Yow, this is scary. I remember reading about this in a Bill Bryson book. I live in Venice, CA, which would be under the ash, apparently. I think tomorrow I’m going to jam-pack an old long-forgotten, internal-frame backpack with some blankets and canned food clothes and a mask and what-not.
    Would a manual water-filter even be effective against this type of ash?


  2. heh, have been following this story for a few days and even blogged it, but if you have an hour to spare check out the ongoing enormous thread at ATS:

    There’s a lot to read but, for once, it’s an ATS thread that isn’t just conspiracy theory or new-age spiritual nonsense. The folks have been researching and working hard to put data together.

    Although it amuses me how many of these folks are honest-to-God certain that they can tell a harmonic tremor with no experience 🙂

    Incidentally, Patrick, if you’re in Cali you are probably safe from ashfall, as the prevaling wind is West-East. However, you would get some horrendous seismic activity, and would still most likely be killed by starvation, cold, disease or civil unrest. Make no mistake, if she blows full-on, the human race is in a very bad place. When Toba blew, the human race was bottlenecked to, some think, about 10,000 survivors. And that was a VEI of 7-ish, it is believed.

    Think about it this way: keep your fingers crossed for nothing happening, but if we get an eruption with a VEI of 7 or 8, then basically we are pretty much ALL dead. If not straight away, eventually. So, as there is nothing that can be done, assume nothing will happen and get on with your life. That’s the way I see it 🙂

    Current USGS and vulcanologist thinking *seems* to point to the idea that if *anything* happens, it may be just a hydrothermal event – which is still devastating to the local area but would not wipe North America off the map, nor affect the world as a whole.


  3. It’s the doomsday mentality that keeps the bureucrats from taking effective action. Yes, everyone caught without masks West of the Mississippi and almost all US wildlife will die a horible death from inhaling ash and food will be very hard to come by for ~3 years, but a few billion people are likely to survive even a VEI 8. Millions could be saved and extensive radioactive contamination could be averted if timely advance warning was given. That gets us to the problem of timely quake analysis. The YVO is short on data, staff, logistical and computational support.Without a timely and comprehensive analysis of risk, the bureaucrats charged with emergency preparedness won’t do squat. Please track down the USGS, DHS and NRC bureaucrats to demand proper support for a timely analysis.


  4. I get your point Tom – and believe me, there are folks out there with much more “doomsday” ways of thinking than me! But I think there is one factor you have to consider should there be a VEI 8 event (and, in all honesty, I don’t think there will be): our dependency of technology and soceital structures, alongside our territorial and agressive nature.

    Undoubtedly, should such an event occur, the loss of life within North America would be unimagineable, short term. Ashfall would probably claim more lives than enything else, initially, most likely in the milions. And I really don’t think that, with the best will in the world, there is much that beaurocrats could do to prevent or ease that. Timely warnings are not really an options – no one knows what supervolcanoes do, so how do you predict something that you don’t understand?

    Secondly, aside from the short term, we should think of the long-term geo-political conequences. The US financial markets would collapse instantly – because they would no longer exist – and I suspect world markets would collapse thereafter. Assuming that predictions of the long-term effects ae correct, glacial icing would force the majority of the Northern Hemisphere to migrate south – at least those who could. You have to consider how that would pan out.

    I am in the UK. If I was forced to migrate south to, say, the equator and away from the ice, how exactly would I do that? Who would fly a plane, or drive a bus, or pilot a boat? Bearing in mind that everyone else in the UK would be doing the same and the countries I am migrating to are busy coping with an influx of potentially hundreds of millions of refugees, have no stable financial markets, and right now have limited resources? With the predicted drop in global temperature, there would be very little resource – i.e the onslaught of acidic rains and low temperatures, and the lack of sunlight caused by intense dispersion of CO2 and sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere would cause mankind to struggle to raise any kind of crop – if there were any left. All but the most hardy plant life would be quickly killed off once the sunlight was reduced. Interestingly, although this sounds counter-intuitive, the two effects that the gas dispersion would cause are intense super-cooling (because of the sulfur dioxide reflecting radiation from the sun) and also intense heating (caused by the CO2 released). The super-cooling may last at the most a few years, but intense greenhouse effect from such massive releases is theorized to last thousands, if not millions of years.

    I would recommend you read about the Siberian Traps: although they are a whole diffrent kettle of fish – a mantle uplift causing lave flows over a 7-million kilometre area over 500,000 to 1 million years – they released enough sulfur dioxide to wrap the planet in a thick layer of ice between the Permian and Triassic eras for several thousand years, and when the CO2 increase eventually allowed the temperatures to rise again this super-hot greenhouse period lasted for millons of years. It is estimated that 99% of life on Earth was wiperd out. Interestingly, the amount of CO2 released over the course of those lava flows is estimated to be about the same as our CO2 emissions since we started using petrochemicals. A poignant thought, but it shows what a lasting effect CO2 can have.

    So, aside from the volcanic Winter in the north, and colder times in the south, for a few years, you could be looking at many, many years of severe desertification worldiwde.

    Now, on the human side, think of any country at or below the equator. Think of all the petty, seemingly pointless political, religious, economic and resource-based fights and squabbles we get into. Now take away that country’s food supply, remove its abilty to sustain itself, remove any source of aid from other countries (as they will be in the same position) and then lastly add millions of refugees from the Nothern Hemisphere. I think you can see where that is heading.

    And there is one last thing to bear in mind. I mentioned about our dependency as a weakness.

    When the Toba supervolcano erupted, mankind lived more of a nomadic existence. They had a greater freedom to migrate, and also had the ability to “live off the land and natural resources” which we do not. Studies of Mitochondrial DNA in the world’s populations have revealed that each “geographical culture” (to use as an abstract term) has a diffrent amount of variability. Highly varied MDNA shows a great ancestral diversity in that culture, whereas a low variabilty shows a very limited ancestral history.

    Research has shown that of all human types, India has the lowest MDNA variation. And across all types, it became evident that something happened about the time of Toba that caused a grat “bottleneck” in human diversity, as if numbers were reduced massively and the gene pool left was horribly restricted overnight. It is interesting to note that the Asian continent is where most of the ashfall from Toba occurred.

    it is surmised that in the Asian continent, based on MDNA, that the population was reduced to around six hunded (because the land was deep in ash, there was no plant life and no way for the people to sustain themselves). And globally, the total human population was probably in the tens of thousands as a result of catastrophic climatic changes.

    These were hardy folk who could survive off the land. But they had little to hunt and little to grow. If their population could be reduced so drastically by a volcano with a VEI of 7, what would a VEI of 8 do to us, who, for the most part, would not have a clue how to fend for ourselves, hate one another, and have grown soft and dependent? How would we survive when there are no livestock, no crops to plant, and the ground is either under kilometres of ice or baked rock hard?

    With all our technology? With all our technological might and our rich plant and animal resources, we can’t stop just one country suffering a famine right now, so how would we prevent a worldwide famine where there are no resources?

    So I would say that I am not doomsaying. I am simply listing a worst-case scenario, to give Patrick a sense of what could happen. Which I why I said that there is almost no point worrying about it, there’s nothing you could do anyway. Certainly nothing that useless Governments or authorities could do, for most likely by that point, they would cease to either exist or be any use.

    Do I think this will actually be the case? In all honesty, after poring through all the USGS data for the last few days, No. Of course, NO-ONE really knows what is going on, or what will happen. Not even the geologists. We have never experienced one before where there have been records. We may get a supervolcanic eruption. We may get a hydrothermal explosion, or maybe a smaller hydrothermal eruption. We may get nothing. No-one has a clue. But I find that, at least for me, even though I do not assume the worst, simply knowing the worst gives me a whole diffrent focus. I find that suddenly the petty annoyances of day to day life are no longer that important, and I find myself being just a little more thoughtful and caring to others. After all, if we are about to be wiped out, I think I would like to be in a peaceful state of mind when I go, if you know what I mean 🙂

    But *should* the worst happen, given the effect that Toba had, I can’t say I am confident that billions would survive. We’d probably end up killing each other and helping nature reduce our ranks even more.

    Remember, Chamberlain thought he had secured peace. And Stalin thought the treaty meant Germany would never attack 🙂


  5. Your scenario pans out fairly well and I could elaborate for pages on why you may even be optimistic about the effects of a VEI 8. The only point I was trying to make was that storage of sufficient cooling water would substantially limit radioactive contamination so that repopulation and agriculture of vast areas would be possible within a few years, Mt. St. Hellens is growing well). If however the CO2 release comes anywhere near the Traps situation, screwit. That continuous magma release and the similar one in India was over much longer periods of time compared to the supervolcano events so the extended global warming is not likely to occur.


  6. Ah, yes, I totally missed that point 😉

    Reacting to the threat of nuclear meltdown would be important, yes I agree. I wonder how much water would need to be stockpiled to guarantee that the rods cold be cooled sufficiently once the plants stop functioning? Scary amounts, I would suspect.

    I agree that the supervolcanoes are not in the same ballpark as thre Traps, that much is true. I doubt that we would see that kind of emission.But Toba is very similar to Yellowstone (I keep having to resist typing “Jellysyone”), as it is a supervolcano. It is not known for sure how long Toba erupted for, but it is beleived it may only have been a matter of weeks. And it’s similar size (as far as we know) to Yellowstone means that it would be a good comparable to judge the effects on eruption.

    I’m sure, if the worst happened, mankind would come out the other side. I just hope I’m not around to have to experience it. Although I can’t help feeling…that mankind as it is now is such a loathsome collection, maybe a “reset” might do us some good. Kind of a “revert to last checkpoint” for when it has all gone horribly awry 🙂

    But again, it’s a “who knows” scenario. For all we know, Jellystone could erupt into a lovely plume of kittens and sparkles. I guess we just wait.


  7. I don’t know how much water they will need and it will vary from plant to plant depending on how fresh their fuel is, (older fuel will have more fission fragments/heat). There are several possible solutions though. They could get severl big pillow tanks up to 250,000 gal. each. They could drill wells onsite to allow ground filtering. If it went off before these were in place, the Coast Guard could sieze tank barges and coastal tankers to divert them for water storage. The problem with doing any of these after eruption is that all engines and pumps will have limited life to to intake of ash through engine air filters and water cooling pumps. You could only run as long as you had spare air filters and pump impellers. The fuel rods, depending on fragment content, won’t have to be actively cooled forever because the heat output will eventually subside as the fragments form stable isotopes. At some point, the heat output will no longer be able to melt the fuel rod cladding.


  8. Most nuclear power plants will automatically shut down if the water flow is reduced. Meaning that if the cooling water supplies are clogged due to ash, then the plants will shut down. So no power in that immediate region. But I guess they could go back to burning coal, who would notice.


  9. They’ll shut down every turbine as soon as the ash creates a threat of chewing up pumps, tubine blades or virtually any moving part exposed to ash laden water or air. The problem with nukes is that you still have to remove the latent heat of radioactive decay in the fuel rods and the normal route of heat removal, power production in the secondary loop, is gone and you wouldn’t want to use the contaminated water directly in the primary cooling loop to screw that up too. They’d probably use the bad water in a pinch, but then you run the risk of sediment allowing localized fuel melting and would gum up/grind up the works so you’d have to take it apart before you returned to power production.


  10. Honest to God, I don’t understand why the “News Media” wastes so much air time on the details when they could cover just as much ground by throwing their arms in the air, crazed looks in their eyes and scream, “IT’S ALL GETTING WORSE…. IT’S JUST SO MUCH WORSE THAN YESTERDAY! EVERYONE IS GOING TO DIE!” and then just sign off. 1st, it’s the truth, 2nd, think about how much credibility short, concise reports like that would bring them and 3rd, there’s all that airtime left over for commercial air space WAAAHHHHOOOOOOOOO.


    1. Mark, excellent summary of what most of the media already does, with only a bit of dressing it up differently. You are way ahead of your time, and you cracked me up.

      Sent from my iPhone


  11. So I’m in the seventh grade and I am doing a report on Yellowstone National Park and I can’t believe what’s going on. This helped a lot, though. Thanks:)
    p.s. a lot of these opinions really make sense… idk what to think!!!!! :/


  12. Again. It is better not to think about it, you will get consumed in the what-ifs. If it does happen, when will it happen, those do not matter. No one would be around to pick up the pieces, it may not even happen in our lifetime, or our childrens lifetime. I have heard that the super-volcano is calming a little, so the explosion should it occur, will probably be its last. Rest assured, if it happens, you probably won’t even know it happened.


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