Plenty of op-eds in the New York Times these days worry about a political apocalypse. A new one warns about the old-fashioned variety. More specifically, author Bryan Walsh is reminding everyone that Yellowstone National Park has a supervolcano, one that last blew 640,000 years ago. If it goes off again—there's a 1-in-730,000 chance of that in any given year, Walsh writes—the "eruption would be like nothing humanity has ever experienced." The park itself would be wiped out, of course, and as much as 3 feet of volcanic ash would be dumped on large parts of Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah. But the effects on the rest of the nation and the world would be catastrophic as well, with reductions in sunlight and rainfall, the widespread destruction of crops, and a breakdown of the electrical grid.
This makes it an "existential risk" for the planet, a catastrophe with a capital C that could theoretically wipe out humans. Asteroid strikes and nuclear wars also qualify, and those risks get more attention and money. But the world has 20 supervolcanoes of the Yellowstone variety, and we humans at the very least should make sure that all are being monitored at the highest levels to reduce the risk of surprise. "What has happened before can and will happen again, eventually—but because we remain confined to the brief human time horizons of our own experience, we treat them as unreal," writes Walsh. This lack of imagination leaves us vulnerable, he warns. (Read the full column.)