Supervolcano Eruption: Humans Only Get One Year To Prepare For Imminent Destruction

John Houck

By analyzing tiny quartz particles, scientists can estimate when a supervolcano eruption is likely to happen. According to data collected in a recent study, humans may only get a one-year warning before such a catastrophic event will occur.

Looking at ancient supervolcano eruption sites, scientists can study the geological events that lead up to the disastrous moment the ground explodes. Generally, this environmental process happens slowly and quietly over time, but the study discovered one unique physical sign that could help scientists predict a cataclysmic volcanic event months before it happens. Researchers have found the formation of a particular type of quartz crystal near the caldera precedes an eruption.

Before a supervolcano can erupt, a substantial amount of magma needs to build up over hundreds or even thousands of years, which slowly pushes against the surface. This accumulation of the melted rock creates an immense amount of pressure, which must find a way to release. This release is known as decompression.

"The evolution of a giant, super-eruption-feeding magma body is characterized by events taking place at a variety of time scales," said Guilherme Gualda, an associate professor at Vanderbilt University and one of the study's authors. "Now we have shown that the onset of the process of decompression, which releases the gas bubbles that power the eruption, starts less than a year before eruption."

Using quartz crystals gathered while studying a supervolcano site nearly 800,000 years old in eastern California, the team of scientists were able to estimate how long it took for them to form a distinctive surface rim. The researchers believe this unique rim formation parallels the decompression process.

Often present in volcanoes, the metal titanium contaminates nearby quartz in a predictable amount and speed, allowing researchers to accurately calculate how long it takes for a certain amount of the substance to enter the crystal. By measuring the concentration of titanium present in the crystals found at the California site, they determined that 70 percent of rim growth occurred in less than 12 months prior to the supervolcano's eruption. According to the study, some crystals may have grown in just a matter of days before the volcano exploded.

The study, published in the journal Plos One, noted another noticeable change that seems to coincide with the formation of titanium-filled crystals. Driven by upward pressure of magma, the Earth's crust will begin to bulge as the supervolcano eruption approaches.

Scientists know of several supervolcano eruptions that have occurred in the distant past. Italy's Campi Flegrei exploded approximately 40,000 years ago, while Toba in Indonesia violently awoke nearly 75,000 years ago.

More recently, Tambora blasted open in 1815. This massive eruption resulted in significant cooling worldwide for more than a year.

Yellowstone, the most famous supervolcano in the world, has had three super-eruptions in the last million years. Many scientists speculate that it is ready to blow once more sometime in the next century.

"As far as we can determine, none of [the world's active supervolcanoes] currently house the type of melt-rich, giant magma body needed to produce a super-eruption. However, they are places where super-eruptions have happened in the past so are more likely to happen in the future."

[Photo by Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images]