The world’s largest active supervolcano resides here in the United States. Nestled under the Yellowstone National Park, this gigantic hotspot is what provides the energy to Old Faithful and the rest of the park’s attractions. Yet rather than being pretty, the hot magna hiding under the park can and will turn pretty ugly at some point in time; we just don’t know when that will be.
Granted, chances of the Yellowstone supervolcano erupting anytime in our lifetime are rather thin. Even though the volcano is overdue for an eruption, according to scientists, the odds of an eruption are a mere 1 in 100,000 every year. Apparently overdue, in geological terms, is measured in figures like 1,000 to 10,000 years.
While there is no sign of an impending eruption, there has been increased seismic activity around the Yellowstone Park in recent weeks, leading some to be concerned. Earthquakes alone aren’t enough to cause an eruption of the supervolcano, but could they be a harbinger or worse things to come?
According to the scientists who track the status of the supervolcano, it can’t erupt for one simple reason; that is, there isn’t enough molten rock underneath the surface. While the entire has a highly elevated temperature and the pocket of lava is twice as big as first thought, not enough of it is molten to erupt. While that could change at any time, it’s an event that can be noticed and tracked, giving us some warning before such an event were to happen.
How much warning we would get is the concern. That could range anywhere from a few days up to a couple of weeks. No more. During that time, massive changes would happen to the surface of the park, essentially destroying it as a national park. But compared to the destruction that the eruption would cause, that is of little concern.
Previous eruptions of the supervolcano didn’t send lava flowing hundreds of miles, as some have indicated. Previous eruptions, which all happened over 70,000 years ago, didn’t send lava any farther than the edges of the park. Lava flow isn’t as prolific from volcanoes as some would have us believe.
But the lava flow is only a small part of what comes out of any volcanic eruption. Most of the material that comes out is hot ash. This is blown high into the atmosphere, creating the “umbrella” cloud that is characteristic of a major volcanic eruption. While the hot magna is extremely destructive to anything in its wake, the destruction from the hot ash from the Yellowstone supervolcano could spread for more than 1,000 kilometers.
One would not normally expect hot ash to be much of a problem. But when it blankets the ground several feet thick, they can destroy life by smothering it. In addition to that, the ash can be as hot as 1,000°C, allowing it to incinerate much of what it falls on.
The map below from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) shows the projected ash fallout should the Yellowstone supervolcano let go in a massive eruption. As one would expect, the highest concentration of ash falling would be closest to the volcano itself and a larger area would be affected to the east of Yellowstone, than to the west, due to prevailing winds (caused by the Earth’s rotation).
While cities like Atlanta and New York would only receive one to three millimeters of ash, just enough to be a nuisance, the cities within a 200 km radius of the volcano would be buried in over 1,000mm. If you’re not up on your metric system, that’s over a yard of hot ash.
The breadbasket of the United States, the Midwest, would see anywhere from 10 to 100mm of ash, destroying crops and killing livestock. While most of our fruits and vegetables are grown in Southern California, Florida and other areas which would receive little ash fallout, the massive farms which supply the grains to our country and to others, would see nothing more than dead crops that year.
The Biggest Bug Out in History
Those scientists who are studying the volcano will probably stick to their posts, studying the volcano even as it erupts. But while they might very well die in their pursuit of knowledge, they would sound the alarm, informing the government of the pending eruption and triggering the biggest bug out in human history.
Orders would go out from the government, telling people to evacuate everything west of the Mississippi River and East of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Ranges. While some would ignore that order, choosing instead to stay behind in their homes, millions more would pack up and get out… or at least try to get out.
For those in the immediately surrounding states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, evacuation would be the only possible option. Failure to evacuate would most assuredly bring death. But evacuation may not be much better, as they would have to leave their entire life and livelihood behind, merely grabbing what they could fit into the car and taking off.
The western half of the Dakotas, western Nebraska and the northern half of Colorado would be the next priority; clogging the highways as they tried to get out of the danger zone. About the only good thing that can be said about these prime evacuation areas, is that there are few large cities, at least compared to the coastal states.
Yet not everyone would be on the move. Amongst those who would stay behind would be many of the poor, who wouldn’t have the money to pack up and leave. Others would stay behind because of their lack of trust of the government. Some preppers would choose to stay behind, especially those with bunkers, believing that they could survive better, sheltering in place. Then there are still others who would see it as an opportunity, choosing to stay behind so that they could pillage and loot what others had left behind.
It’s hard to say which group would fare better, for our nation’s highways were never designed for such a massive movement of people. Highways would become blocked almost instantly by the sheer number of vehicles on the move. Yet it wouldn’t be long before most of those vehicles weren’t moving anymore, as people ran out of gas or their cars overheated in traffic.
Gas stations quickly ran out of product when California gave the evacuation order for those living downstream of the Oroville Dam; and that was for a mere 188,000 people. What makes anyone think that things would be any better with tens of millions of people on the move?
The vast majority of those people would quickly find themselves on foot, trying to flee a pending menace that has not yet manifested itself. At an average walking speed of 3.5 miles per hour, they’d be lucky to make it 40 miles per day, assuming they’re in shape. Of course, that’s assuming the traffic wouldn’t prevent them from going that fast. For those living in the high danger areas and probably even the secondary danger zone, that would mean that there would be no way that they could outwalk the danger. They would have hot ash falling on them, before they could get anywhere near safety.
To be caught out in the open when the hot ash starts falling would probably be worse than to be caught indoors. Although, being in a building which could catch fire wouldn’t be any better. The only way to survive, if one was caught in the high danger area, would be to either be underground or in a structure that wouldn’t catch fire from the falling ash.
Dangers From the Eruption
The actual danger that one particular person would face would depend largely on how far they were from Yellowstone and how the winds played out in the eruption. Supervolcanoes spew enough hot ash into the atmosphere to drastically disrupt weather and wind patterns, creating their own. So while the prevailing wind is normally from the northwest, the volcano could actually cause it to shift somewhat for a short period of time.
But the weather effects of the eruption wouldn’t just last for a few days. The high amount of ash in the atmosphere means that it would not all fall quickly. Some would stay in the upper atmosphere for several years, blocking out sunlight and causing a cooling period, with harsh winters, for a decade. Plant growth would be down, due to the lack of sufficient sunlight, so the crops lost in the first year would be followed by about ten years of poor harvests.
This actually happened in 1815, when the Mount Tambora volcano, located on the island of Sumbawa erupted. Enough ash and gases were spewed into the upper atmosphere, that it actually snowed in June! Crop failures were widespread in the United States and throughout Europe for the next three years. Even Thomas Jefferson wrote about it in his diary, saying, “Never were such hard times.”
As long as the ash was falling, it would cause health risks. Breathing in the hot ash, even after it had cooled to the point that it would not burn the skin, could still cause extensive damage to the lungs. Enough of the ash particles would be small enough, that it would be like breathing in secondhand smoke, with the same potential of causing cancer.
Considering that the ash would be falling for several years, this would be an ongoing risk. The only protection would be to wear a mask to filter the air which we would be breathing. As some of the particles would not be visible, you can be sure that people will end up avoiding the use of masks once the air “looks good” and suffer the tragic results years later.
Finally, the eruption of the supervolcano would literally decimate the country’s finances. The loss of so many businesses, along with the capital investment would not be easily recovered. Millions of people would lose everything they had worked their whole lives for, moving east with nothing more than what they could carry with them. These people would be forced to start over, with literally nothing.
Yet the areas they would be moving into would not be prepared to accept them. There are no cities full of empty apartments, which could easily accommodate so many displaced people. FEMA wouldn’t even be able to do much, as some of the very companies they would need to depend on would be in the areas being evacuated. Poverty and suffering would abound, making the Great Depression look small in comparison.
But the states which these people would be moving to would most likely be in a financial crisis as well, making it difficult for them to help the refugees. At the first word of the pending eruption, stock values on Wall Street would plummet, as investors tried to liquidate. Some would be doing so because of having to evacuate and needing ready cash, while others would be bailing out because of the financial insecurity caused by not knowing which companies would survive and which would fail.
Surviving the Eruption Itself
What you’ll need to do to survive the eruption will depend a lot on how close you live to Yellowstone. Obviously, the danger would be much greater for those who live close, than those who live farther away. Therefore, the reaction of those who live close would have to be much more severe, if they are going to survive.
As the risk is different for each zone, I’m going to deal with them differently, using the map above as a reference.
Dark Blue Zone - >1,000mm
This zone extends 250 to 500 kilometers from the epicenter of the volcano. As such, it would be the most severely impacted area. We could expect some falling lava, as well as a lot of hot ash. Wildfires would probably rage out of control and pretty much everything would be destroyed. What wasn’t destroyed would be sitting under as much as a meter of ash, permanently entombed.
The only chance that the people in this zone would have would be to bug out and get much farther away from the volcano. Everything that they had, except what they could carry with them, would be destroyed. These people need a good bug out plan in place and need to implement it at the first sign of trouble, or they wouldn’t survive.
Blue-purple Zone – 300-1,000mm
We’re now talking about a zone that extends as much as 1,000 km from the volcano. Like those who live in the dark blue zone, these people would also need to evacuate. Some could survive in an underground bunker, but chances are that they would end up trapped in their bunker by the falling ash, as it solidifies on the ground.
With so much ash on the ground (11 – 39 inches), it would be impossible to recognize roads and many landmarks. It would become impossible to cultivate the ground and ground water would probably evaporate from the great heat. Until it rained, it would be impossible to find water. But rain wouldn’t help much, as it would soak into the porous ash.
Purple Zone – 30-100mm
In this zone people are going to be hit with 3 to 11 inches of ash. Depending on how much they actually get, it might be possible to survive for a short period of time in this zone, which extends over 1,500 km from the volcano. However, long-term survival would be impossible, except in those areas where the ash buildup was at the lower end of the scale. While crops would still be destroyed, it would be possible to turn the ash into the soil and replant.
This is the closest zone where there is any chance of survival. But even so, people living in this area should consider evacuating to a safer area. While the ash is falling, dust masks would have to be worn to prevent breathing in the hot ash.
Orange Zone – 10-30mm
Thirty millimeters is a little over an inch, so the ash fall in this zone wouldn’t be too bad. While it would still destroy crops and dust masks would still be required, people could survive in this zone. People would have to be careful with water, purifying their own, as lakes, reservoirs and rivers would be contaminated from the ash. Chances are, it would be possible for them to rebuild their lives, although that would require a lot of cleanup work.
The biggest problem people living in this zone would have to contend with is the massive influx of refugees trying to escape the more dangerous areas. Local services would be overwhelmed, supplies would run out and crime would increase. There is a strong chance that a full breakdown of society would take place, as people struggled to survive.
Yellow Zones – 1-10mm
People in the yellow zone would be the least affected by the eruption itself, with only small quantities of ash falling on their homes. Even so, crops would be destroyed and water supplies contaminated. As with the orange zone, massive influxes of refugees would gobble up available resources. Food supplies would become the biggest problem, as the majority of the breadbasket would be destroyed. Massive famine would last for at least a few years.
Any relief effort would have to be organized by those living in the yellow zone, but they will be hard pressed to do so. The total devastation to the country, food shortages and problems with the water will put pretty much everyone in the country into survival mode to one extent or another. With the shortages that will occur, it is unlikely that major relief efforts will be able to be mounted.
Prepping for the Eruption
Is it possible to prepare for such a cataclysmic event? Yes, it’s possible; but it won’t be easy. As we can see from the previous section, a lot will depend on where you live. For those who are living closer to Yellowstone, the only real survival plan they can have is a good bug out plan. That includes someplace safe where they can go and resettle.
If any of these people have friends or family members who live in the orange or yellow zones, I’d recommend becoming real close to them. They would probably be your best refuge, assuming you can make it to their home. If possible, stockpile supplies in their home, taking into consideration that you’d need enough for both of your families.
You will need to prepare your vehicle for a long-distance evacuation. That means that it should be able to travel long distances, without the need to stop and resupply. Adding additional gas tanks or portable gas cans is a must, especially when you are starting out. While gas supplies will be limited everywhere, the less you have to stop in the initial part of your trip, the better.
Take into consideration that you will have several nights on the road, and build a stock of equipment and supplies for your vehicle accordingly. I’m not going to get into detail about that here, because I’ve written about it elsewhere. But your best bet is to not expect to find what you need along the way.
The other thing that these people will need is plenty of cash. Pulling up stakes and moving across the country is an expensive undertaking at any time. With the massive migration that the eruption would cause, prices on shelter and many supplies will skyrocket. Just getting enough gasoline and food to get across the country will be challenging.
Sheltering in Place
Those who live far enough away from the volcano that they can shelter in place will need to be more concerned about the ash fall and the long-term shortages, than they will the danger of the volcano’s eruption itself. I think it’s safe to say that we can expect the following problems to occur:
- Temporary brownouts and blackouts, as parts of the grid are destroyed
- Water shortages, caused by blackouts and water supplies becoming contaminated by ash
- Extensive food shortages. This problem will continue for about ten years, as the ash in the upper atmosphere blocks some sunlight and lowers temperatures
- Shortages in manufactured goods, especially those which come from areas affected by the volcano
- Breakdown of law and order in some areas, especially those inundated by refugees
- Increase in violence as people try to find the necessities for survival
Prepping to survive such a massive and long-term problem will be difficult. More than anything, it will require a massive stockpile of food and other supplies, much more than most people are accustomed to stockpiling. With the long-term effects on weather, famine will most likely extend through the following ten years.
The normal answer that preppers have to long-term food shortages is to plan on gardening and raising their own food. That answer may not be as effective in this situation, as it would be in others. The same problems with lack of sunlight that would cause problems for farmers, would also cause problems for the average prepper, reducing the yield of any crops they plant.
The only real solution for this is to move your gardening operation indoors, using artificial light. That would require having the necessary space inside your home or apartment for growing those plants, as well as the containers, fertilizers and a watering system. You would also need to be ready to hand-pollinate your plants, as you probably wouldn’t be moving a beehive into your home.
While this is considerably more complicated than the average backyard garden, it is possible. One advantage of this sort of gardening is that there would be much less chance of problems with the normal garden pests, so you don’t have the risk of losing your crops to those pests.
While water will be available in the yellow and orange zones, it will probably be contaminated by falling ash. Your normal water purification system should be able to handle this. However, it will clog your system up much faster. For this reason, it would be a good idea to pre-filter your water to get the ash out, before running it through your purification system. A simple 5 micron filter can handle this.
You’ll also need to have pH test strips to check the water, as the ash will tend to make it alkaline. If it gets too alkaline, it will kill your plants. So you’ll need some way of countering that, usually by adding some acid to the soil your plants are in.
As with any other scenario where there is a chance for a breakdown of society, you will need to be ready to defend your home and family. While we can all hope that there won’t be an increase in violence, the truth is that desperate people do desperate things. With the food shortages that will exist, we must assume that people will do some desperate things in order to feed themselves and their families. This will include ganging together to attack those who have food. So you must be prepared in case that happens.Finally, don’t forget the dust masks. Falling ash can include small enough particles that they are not visible to the naked eye. Without a mask, breathing those particles in can be extremely dangerous to your lungs, destroying tissue and possibly even causing cancer.