Ashley Lister’s A-Z of Horror: Y is for Yellowstone

 People often ask me, “What scares you?”

It’s a reasonable question to ask someone who writes in the horror genre. I suspect there’s an assumption with this question that, if I’m writing about a subject, that subject probably doesn’t really scare me. You can’t be scared of ghosts if you’re writing about them. Your hand would shake too much to hold the pencil steady.

To some extent I think this is true. Whilst I do like to write about those things that I find unnerving, I need to be (mentally) in a comfortable space, where I can write about the subject without being scared of potential ramifications. In other words, whilst I’m quite capable of being scared of ghosts and ghoulies once the sun has gone down and I’m alone in a dark house, I can distance myself from the immediacy of the fear during the daylight hours when I’m writing about such horrors. The same goes for vampires, werewolves, zombies, demons, honest Tories and every other imaginary creature that has ever disturbed the human imagination.

So, when someone asks me what I find genuinely scary, I’m most likely to respond by mentioning Yellowstone Caldera, or, as it’s often known, the Yellowstone Super-volcano. And I’m also likely to mention, if this super-volcano ever erupts again, it’s fair to say we’re all screwed.

To put this into some sense of scale, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was written in 1816. This was the year known as ‘the year without a summer’. It was called ‘the year without a summer’ because the previous year’s eruption of Mount Tambora had been a week long eruption. According to the Paris Review:

“Tambora, on the island of Sumbawa, Indonesia—then the Dutch East Indies—began its week-long eruption on April 5, 1815, though its impact would last years. Lava flows leveled the island, killing nearly all plant and animal life and reducing Tambora’s height by a third. It belched huge clouds of dust into the air, bringing almost total darkness to the surrounding area for days. The geologist Charles Lyell would reflect that “the darkness occasioned in the daytime by the ashes in Java was so profound, that nothing equal to it was ever witnessed in the darkest night.” According to Lyell, of the twelve thousand residents of the province of Tambora, only twenty-six survived. Tens of thousands more were choked to their deaths by the thick black air and the falling dust, which blanketed the ground in piles more than a meter high.”

All of which sounds bad enough. Reports tell us that countless tons of volcanic ash circulated in the upper atmosphere for years after the event. This ash blocked out sunlight and lowered average surface temperatures globally. Parts of North America and Europe saw temperatures drop by more than eighteen degrees Fahrenheit. There was snow in New England in July, and dark rain clouds swept over Europe throughout the summer months. In Hungary, there were reports of brown snowfall, tainted by volcanic ash. With the cold came crop failures and famine, and the price of basic commodities skyrocketed. Record numbers of people starved to death in Paris in 1816. These bleak circumstances hit hardest in and around the Alpine regions of France, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland (Paris Review).

And, whilst this sounds horrific, Tambora was not a super-volcano. Being honest, with an ejecta volume >100 km3, Tambora is categorised as Ultra-Plinian, putting it firmly in the super-colossal category of volcanic eruptions. (Ejecta are particles ejected from an area. In volcanology, in particular, the term refers to particles including pyroclastic materials that came out of a volcanic explosion and magma eruption volcanic vent, or crater, has travelled through the air or under water, and fell back on the ground surface or on the ocean floor).

Yellowstone is bigger. Where Tambora has an ejecta volume >100 km3, Yellowstone has an ejecta volume 10 times larger at >1,000 km3. In other words, whilst Tambora took summer from the world for a year, eradicated the population of Tambora province, choked tens of thousands with clouds of black ash and brought about economic and environmental devastation, an eruption from Yellowstone would be worse. Much worse.

To date Yellowstone is known to have violently erupted three times. It’s likely that it’s erupted a lot more than three times but, the thing about volcanic eruptions is that they tend to destroy the evidence of previous volcanic eruptions. However, we’re aware that Yellowstone’s calderas erupted two million years ago, 1.3 million years and 630,000 years ago.
The smallest of these was 1.3 million years ago. This released 67 cubic miles of ejecta. By contrast, Tambora released 36 miles of ejecta. Or, to give this even more perspective, The 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption, which has been described as the most destructive in U.S. history, was only responsible for fifty-seven deaths, the killing of thousands of animals, the destruction of more than 200 homes, and damage to more than 185 miles of roads and 15 miles of railways. The Mount St Helens eruption released 0.24 cubic miles of ejecta.

So, when we learn that Yellowstone’s most recent eruption (630,000 years ago) released 240 cubic miles of ejecta, we can realise that this presents a substantial threat to life on this planet. When we read that the earliest recorded eruption of Yellowstone released 600 cubic miles of ejecta, I think it’s fair to say that it makes the idea of a ghost or a vampire seem inconsequential in comparison.

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