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Earth Science

In Bolivia, a Supervolcano Is Rising 469

dutchwhizzman writes "Uturuncu is a Bolivian supervolcano. Research suggests that it has an eruption frequency of roughly 300,000 years and the last eruption was, give or take a few years, 300,000 years ago. Research suggests that it started rising in a 70 km diameter by 1 to 2 centimeters per year, making it the fastest-growing volcano on the planet. Break out the tin foil hats, and store plenty of canned beans, because it may just erupt before Yellowstone pops its cork."
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In Bolivia, a Supervolcano Is Rising

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  • Oh hell (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 27, 2011 @09:03AM (#37854474)
    This'll make the price of cocaine skyrocket, harming innocent consumers the world over.
    • USA has been losing the drug war. After trillions of dollars spent with 3 (almost 4) decades of losses the WoD UStrategy has moved to mother-nature manipulation to initiate volcanic activity in global regions that produce and export drugs to US for power and profit. Finally a WoD UStrategy that will destroy the organic source of the problem. No more crops, way less consumers, and the end of another underground economy.

      • except that volcanic soil is some of the most fertile, atleast, when it cools.

  • by Zouden ( 232738 ) on Thursday October 27, 2011 @09:05AM (#37854502)

    I thought tinfoil hats are to protect you from government mind-rays, not lava. Though tinfoil is pretty amazing stuff.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday October 27, 2011 @09:09AM (#37854532)

      You are correct. For lava you need to duck and cover.

      • I know the cover is to keep the molten rock and ashes from falling on you, but are you really thinking about cooking dinner when the volcano erupts?
    • I think it's like when you line the baking tray with foil before putting the turkey in the oven. Clearly our new cannibalistic post-volcano overlords want to make sure that we're nicely cooked - not too dry, but not undercooked in the centre either. The last thing you need is to have to get up from your throne of skulls in your remote mountain fortress every 10 minutes to run to the restroom.

    • You might want to finish any exposed points with a layer of duct tape just to be on the safe side.

  • by elrous0 ( 869638 ) * on Thursday October 27, 2011 @09:07AM (#37854516)

    Looks like I picked a bad week to stop sniffing glue.

  • by ComaVN ( 325750 ) on Thursday October 27, 2011 @09:08AM (#37854528)

    That's 70km across, not circumference.

  • The Mayans are on to something...

    • They were still collecting the necessary Far Side Comics before they could continue the rest of their calendar. They just died out before they could finish it.

      • Re:2012-12-21 (Score:5, Informative)

        by element-o.p. ( 939033 ) on Thursday October 27, 2011 @12:01PM (#37856946) Homepage
        I know you were making a joke (and for the record, it was kind of funny), but FWIW, the Mayans didn't die out. I was in Guatemala hanging out with a bunch of Mayans [google.com] not quite two years ago (who, incidentally, were asking me what was with the "Mayan" 2012 thing they had been hearing about, lol). They've largely been incorporated into the culture of the countries in which they now live, but they still keep their ancestral lineage and speak their various Mayan dialects (Tzutachiel, IIRC, was the dialect spoken by the group I was with) as well Spanish.
        • Confirming this. I was in Panajachel in 2010 and hung out with a bunch of Mayans as well. They all find the 2012 phenomenon hilarious.

        • Re:2012-12-21 (Score:5, Informative)

          by pluther ( 647209 ) <pluther@usa.ERDOSnet minus math_god> on Thursday October 27, 2011 @01:54PM (#37858772) Homepage
          In Uxmal, there's a marker that plaque that explains both the fact that the Maya built the pyramids themselves - they did not have the help of any aliens, and points out "Nor did the Maya disappear. We are still here. One of us wrote this plaque!"

          Also, point of correction: The term for the people is the "Maya". The languages are "Mayan". "Mayans" is an obsolete term that is not correct in any context.

          (Also, they don't generally refer to *themselves* as Maya, but rather as "Tzotzil", "Winik atel", "Yucatec", and so forth. (Or, occasionally, "Indios", which I've never been able to figure out whether it translates as "Indians" or "Indigenous" - they call the North American Native Americans "Indios" as well.))

    • Well, the Mayans did used to occupy that area. A super-volcano erupting would end their civilization as they knew it.

  • If they both erupt the "is man effecting climate" argument would become moot.

    • No, the largest eruption on record only gave like a year of cooled weather, and while these are likely to be substantially larger eruptions, an eruption large enough to produce a climate change mooting atmospheric change would probably go a long ways towards ending life as we know it.

      Perhaps somebody knows better, but the way that the effect works, you need a huge change the next year and it diminishes each year as the particles fall out of the atmosphere.

      My hunch is basically that it would give us some bre

      • Re:silver lining (Score:4, Insightful)

        by bmo ( 77928 ) on Thursday October 27, 2011 @09:46AM (#37854860)

        I don't think you know how bad supervolcanoes are.

        Think Mt. St. Helens.

        Then multiply it by 1000. At once. Just for this guy. It would be bad. A lot of people on different continents would die from lack of food because the growing season would be nonexistent for many people. For years.

        If the Siberian Traps go, we're all fucked. That's called an extinction event.


        • Yes indeedy. Or if Yellowstone goes. Did anyone point out that supervolcano eruptions (or straight up basaltic flows) can go on for, say, million year timescales? They can alter climate catastrophically for time frames of hundreds of thousands of years and they produce all sorts of interesting gases that are up-front toxic, not to mention the hot molten rock that can spread out over hundreds of thousands of square kilometers. They are baaaaad.

          And just one of the many completely natural ways the Earth
      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by LWATCDR ( 28044 )

        Wow really? I mean this has got to be about the dumbest thing I have ever read on slashdot.
        "No, the largest eruption on record only gave like a year of cooled weather, and while these are likely to be substantially larger eruptions, an eruption large enough to produce a climate change mooting atmospheric change would probably go a long ways towards ending life as we know it.
        Duhhh A super volcano would be at least an order of magnitude worse then Krakatoa. I decided to spend a little time and look it up and

        • Re:silver lining (Score:4, Interesting)

          by Arlet ( 29997 ) on Thursday October 27, 2011 @10:35AM (#37855406)


          Not really. The poster was explaining that volcanic eruptions have a relatively short time effect on the climate. The first year after the eruption, the effect is big, and then exponentially decays with each passing year.

          This means that a volcano is not going to give any kind of relief. A small eruption only means a few cool years before the global warming resumes on the old trend. A large eruption would cause a longer cooling period, but would kill most life in the first year. Either way, we're hosed.

          There are no 'goldilocks eruptions' that would bring relief from global warming for a few decades, without causing substantial harm themselves.

      • Re:silver lining (Score:5, Interesting)

        by tnk1 ( 899206 ) on Thursday October 27, 2011 @10:06AM (#37855072)

        A supervolcano is *significantly* larger than the largest recorded volcanic eruption, on the order of ten times or more. The last one, Lake Toba, was 70,000 years ago, or so. And according to what I have read, mitochondrial DNA shows a genetic bottleneck around that time where something reduced the human population down to a few tens of thousands across the entire world. And this is back when humans were a lot better at moving around and hunting and gathering getting their own food.

        It would make the current level of human climate change look like a joke in particularly bad taste.

        The largest volcanic eruption in historic times, in 1815 at Mount Tambora, ejected the equivalent of around 100 km3 (24 cu mi) of dense rock and made 1816 the "Year Without a Summer" in the whole northern hemisphere. The Lake Toba explosion ejected 2,800 km3 (670 cu mi) and probably created volcanic equivalent of a Nuclear winter for years, not to mention the acidic rain and other fun volcanic stuff.

        You can read most of this at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toba_catastrophe_theory [wikipedia.org]

        So yeah, we are talking about an apocalyptic scenario if this thing, or one of the other ones goes off any time soon. Billions would die, absolutely guaranteed.

        • by Surt ( 22457 ) on Thursday October 27, 2011 @10:17AM (#37855192) Homepage Journal

          Meh, there are a lot of meaty animals around if we get hungry. Why, I recently heard of this one species with 7 billion members, spread all around the world. Plenty to eat for years.

    • If they both erupt the "is man effecting climate" argument would become moot.


  • by MyLongNickName ( 822545 ) on Thursday October 27, 2011 @09:13AM (#37854572) Journal

    I am coming at this from an uneducated viewpoint, but would appreciate an answer from someone a bit more educated...

    If we were to drill into this forming volcano, use geothermal energy to create electricity, could you delay, decrease or prevent the volcano from erupting? It seems like a really good win/win situation where you get almost free energy and prevent a small country from getting obliterated.

    • I'm interested to know the answer too, if you had a really large scale geothermal install and 20k years to pull heat out.

      One point though. This is a supervolcano. If it erupts, it will take out much of South America, not just Bolivia, and it'll be a worldwide trainwreck since crops will fail pretty much everywhere.

      A supervolcano eruption is a local apocalypse and a global disaster.....


    • by MyLongNickName ( 822545 ) on Thursday October 27, 2011 @09:32AM (#37854714) Journal

      I found some facts to help me wrap my brain around the magnitude of the problem. If any of my facts are incorrect, please let me know!

      Human's Energy Consumption (annual) = 4.74 * 10^20 J
      1 ton of TNT = 4.184 * 10^9 J
      St. Helen's volcano = 2.4 * 10^7 tons of TNT = roughly 1 * 10^17 J

      I have a hard time believing that St. Helen's toal energy is only about 1/5,0000 of our total annual energy consumption. If it is true, however, it seems like venting and using the power is feasible.

      • St. Helen's was NOT a "Supervolcano".
        • by mapkinase ( 958129 ) on Thursday October 27, 2011 @10:18AM (#37855200) Homepage Journal

          The estimated volume of Yellowstone eruption was 1000km^3 while Krakatoa eruption was 25km^3. If one consider that energy ~ volume, then Yellowstone is estimated to be 1Gigaton of TNT

          For comparison, in circa October 2008 [nti.org] operational stockpile of US "contains the explosive equivalent of more than 91,500 Hiroshima-sized bombs" x 15kT ~ 1.5 Gigaton of TNT.

          It was said many times that existing stockpile of nuclear weapon is enough to cause a Nuclear Winter. According to one of the recent models [wikipedia.org]:

          A global average surface cooling of –7C to –8C persists for years, and after a decade the cooling is still –4C (Fig. 2). Considering that the global average cooling at the depth of the last ice age 18,000 yr ago was about –5C, this would be a climate change unprecedented in speed and amplitude in the history of the human race. The temperature changes are largest over land ... Cooling of more than –20C occurs over large areas of North America and of more than –30C over much of Eurasia, including all agricultural regions.

      • by GryMor ( 88799 )

        My back of the envelope calculations put 10^17 J as a low ball for how much it's expending per year simply lifting it's cap against earths gravitational field.

      • by jovius ( 974690 )

        Another comparison:

        "The projected 2010 anthropogenic CO2 emission rate of 35 gigatons per year is 135 times greater than the 0.26-gigaton-per-year preferred estimate for volcanoes."

        "Scaling up CO2 releases of volcanic paroxysms to the 35-gigaton anthropogenic CO2 emission level is also revealing. For example, scaling up the 0.05-gigaton CO2 release of the 15 June 1991 Mount Pinatubo paroxysm to the current anthropogenic CO2 emission level requires 700 equivalent paroxysms annually."

        "Similarly, scaling the 0

    • by JoeMerchant ( 803320 ) on Thursday October 27, 2011 @09:33AM (#37854720)

      I am coming at this from an uneducated viewpoint, but would appreciate an answer from someone a bit more educated...

      If we were to drill into this forming volcano, use geothermal energy to create electricity, could you delay, decrease or prevent the volcano from erupting? It seems like a really good win/win situation where you get almost free energy and prevent a small country from getting obliterated.

      70km across (35,000m radius, about 4 billion square meters)... you were planning on extracting energy using maybe 30cm diameter pipes? Say, generously, these pipes can pull heat energy from lava up to 30m away from themselves (3000 square meters), To drain heat energy from just 1% of the surface of the dome, you'd need 13,000 pipes - how deep are you planning to sink them to have an effect? Even if you solidify the cap to a depth of 5km, I'm not sure that the forces underneath would be contained, they'd probably just divert to somewhere nearby, and likely explode with even greater force from a smaller area.

      It would be a big project - if you put all the oil drillers in the western hemisphere on the job, you might make an ineffective cooling "cap" a few km deep within a few hundred years - all that heat being dumped into the ocean (unless you have a preferable heat sink?) would have a devastating effect on thousands of square km of sea life, and sure, there'd be "free" geothermal energy until the volcano blew, but only as far as you could transmit it.

      • Thanks for your reply. my question is why would the pipe only to pull energy from lava a few meters away from itself? If I am extracting energy from the lava underneath, it seems like conduction would mean I'd be pulling from a much larger area. I'm not looking to drain all of the energy in one day or one year. Just enough to keep the system in some type of equilibrium. If the numbers I found for Mt. St Helen are correct, and even if I assume that this volcano is a thousand times larger, it doesn't seem lik

        • by Splab ( 574204 )

          I don't think you quite get the scale of this.

          This baby is 70 km in diameter, rising at 2 cm a year across the board: (35*100.000)^2 cm * pi * 2cm = 76 969 020 m3 of magma you want to cool down, even the Icelandic would give up on that.

      • 13k pipes seems like a cheap price to pay to preserve South America from an apocalypse and save the world from a global agricultural train wreck.

        I guess an alternative is to relocate everyone in South America and stockpile 2 years of food for every person alive. That'd be a lot more practical if we only had a few hundred million people alive at the time--probably a better way to go.


    • In addition to the risk of popping it, you have to realize that there's a tremendous amount of energy there, it's sort of like how you can have a magnitude 5 earthquake and then have a magnitude 9 a few months later, there's just so much energy involved that you're not going to have a relatively minor thing like that bleeding off enough energy for it to make much of a difference.

      • Please see some of the numbers I found on Mt. Saint Helen. If those numbers are off, please point me to better sources. Thanks.

        • Please see some of the numbers I found on Mt. Saint Helen. If those numbers are off, please point me to better sources. Thanks.

          The Mt. Saint Helen numbers are most probably a measure just of its explosive yield, which would be a tiny fraction of the overall thermal energy contained in all the lava driving the eruption.

    • I don't think you could do it with just geothermal extraction, but as a somewhat more mad-scientist oriented approach, might it be possible to drill a pressure-release valve? Obviously you'd have to use an unmanned machine for such a venture, because you will lose it once the lava begins to flow, but if you could get to the right point before the pressure gets too high, might you be able to drain it off in a reasonably controlled manner?

    • by danhaas ( 891773 )

      IANAG, but I think removing heat wouldn't make such a difference.

      There's some process in the mantle feeding this area, adding mass to it. The biggest problem is pressure, since that mass is used to compress the volume under the volcano. When the rock shatters, that pressure is communicated with the surface and then there is an upward flow.

      Refrigerating the volume of rock under the volcano won't change much of its pressure.

      From a geoengineering point of view, I think that what's necessary is a controlled er

    • by Hentes ( 2461350 )

      Drilling next to a high pressure magma chamber will just make it happen sooner.

    • by tibit ( 1762298 )

      You'd need to take the energy out of that thing at a certain rate. Let's see what ballpark that rate falls into.

      For potential energy, if we assume average crust density of 2.7g/cm^3, radius of 35km, 10km thick, then 2*pi*(35km)^2*10km*2.7g/cm^3 = 6E15kg. That rising 1cm a year means energy flow of 6E14J/year = 18MW. That's the minimum you'd have to extract, methinks.

      The heat flow from the mantle over this area is 65E-3 W/(m^2) * (2*pi*(35 km)^2) = 500MW, so it's an order of magnitude more.

      Even if the assump

      • by tibit ( 1762298 )

        What I've of course ignored is any extra heat transport due to convection. I hope that the magma "blob" is isolated and not in convective transport with the mantle.

    • by LWATCDR ( 28044 )

      Well no really.
      1. It is unlikely that we could drill deep enough to get to the really hot stuff.
      2. You would need lots of water since you are hoping that there is not a lot of water in that mix.
      3, If there is a lot of water BOOM.
      4. It would not just take out a small country it will take out a large section of South America. Coffee and cocaine product would both end.
      5. All that drilling may cause it to erupt.
      And now let's talk about scale.
      The last super volcano eruption in that area looks to have been a larg

  • ...at least that'll cool off the globe by a few degrees. I guess I won't sell my Hummer just yet.
  • Supervolcano? Is this like one of those... what did they used to call 'em,... caldera's?

    • I think a caldera is just the left over empty bowl of a volcano that collapses in on itself or explodes out. Like Crater Lake in Oregon.
  • FTFA:

    "It's not a volcano that we think is going to erupt at any moment, but it certainly is interesting, because the area was thought to be essentially dead," de Silva said.

    • I suspect worrying about the legal system will be way down the list if a super volcano erupts underneath you.

  • 300.000 years isn't very long. Now if it were 300,000 years, that's a whole different story...
    • by fatgav ( 555629 )
      I will not make any assumptions as to whether that is a joke or not, but if you were being serious, you may like to know that members of many continental European countries use a comma as their decimal point and vice versa. Alas 13,000.00 would be written as 13.000,00. As the original poster's name includes the word 'dutch' it may give an indication along this line.
      • When translating text into a different language, it is customary to also translate the various other locale-specific conventions. For example, if you are translating a note about a meeting on the third of January from French to American English, then you would be incorrect if you did not rewrite 1/3 as 3/1. Similarly, you would be incorrect if you did not change 100,000 into 100.000. This is especially important if there are three digits after the decimal point, because comma is used as a thousands separ
      • Alas, ones nationality doth colour ones perceptions.

  • Look, it was predicted by the South Americans. Who would know the terrain best? Natives who lived there for thousands of years? Or some mamby pamby scientist in a lab coat, thick glasses, may be a beard and a few letters behind his name?

    Good, now I will resolve the defect about my time counter being 32 bits and going to over flow in y2k32 as "not worth fixing."

  • ...it'll blow up on Dec. 21 2012.

    If only because it'll be bloody inconvenient as we won't be able to shut up the 2012 doomsday nuts...ever.

  • The Wikipedia article linked from the /. summary states that the volcano last produced lava "between 890 and 271 thousand years ago". I'm not sure that really qualifies as "give or take a few years, 300.000 years ago".
  • The actual volcano in question ISN'T a super volcano. It's a conventional volcano as it has a mountain peak. A super volcano never forms a mountain because of the size and speed of the eruption can't pile lava up to form a mountain peak. All there is of a super volcano is a large caldera at ground level, or perhaps in a valley (like at Yellowstone). However there ARE extinct super volcanos in the area (perhaps not so extinct?).

  • That if it were to start erupting. There is not one damned thing we could do about it. Nothing. Well placed nukes might change the pattern of eruption slightly, but that's about all. With a very few exceptions, we'd be king-hell fucked as a species.

To do two things at once is to do neither. -- Publilius Syrus