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Ways the world could end: NASA edition

By: Katherine Butler on Feb. 16, 2012, 5:56 p.m.
Mt. St. Helen's erupting in 2004

Photo: John Pallister/United States Geological Survey/Wikimedia Commons [CC by 1.0]

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Supervolcano: Not your traditional eruption

Imagine a volcanic eruption in which layers of ash cover most of the continents. Magma 10,000 times the quantity from Mount St. Helens (pictured) is thrown hundreds of miles into the air. Think this is a science-fiction fantasy? Unfortunately, it’s not. Supervolcano eruptions are a part of Earth’s history. The largest volcanic eruption on Earth is believed to be the Mount Toba eruption in Sumatra, which happened some 74,000 years ago. It is believed that the force of this eruption came close to wiping out all life on Earth — including man.

But will it happen again? While there is no evidence that a super eruption is eminent, there are roughly a dozen supervolcanoes on Earth today. Even Yellowstone National Park is the site of a massive supervolcano. Yellowstone sits atop a subterranean chamber of molten rock and gasses, an area so large that it is considered one of the biggest supervolcanoes on Earth. Its caldera, or the equivalent to a crater top, is 1,500 square miles. Experts believe the last major eruption in Yellowstone was 640,000 years ago, throwing 8,000 times the amount of ash and lava of Mount St. Helens into the air.