There are volcanoes, and then there are supervolcanoes. The latter have no agreed-on definition—the term was popularized in a BBC documentary in 2000—but some scientists use it to describe explosions of exceptional violence and volume. The U.S. Geological Survey applies the term to any eruption ejecting more than 1,000 cubic kilometers (240 cubic miles) of pumice and ash in a single event—more than 50 times the size of the infamous Krakatau eruption of 1883, which killed more than 36,000 people. Volcanoes form mountains; supervolcanoes erase them. Volcanoes kill plants and animals for miles around; supervolcanoes threaten whole species with extinction by changing the climate across the entire planet.
No supervolcano has erupted in recorded human history, but geologists have pieced together what an explosion must have been like. First, a plume of heat wells up from deep within the planet and melts rock just beneath the crust of the Earth, creating a vast chamber filled with a pressurized mix of magma, semisolid rock, and dissolved water vapor, carbon dioxide, and other gases. As additional magma accumulates in the chamber over thousands of years, the land above begins to dome upward by inches. Fractures open along the dome's edges, as if burglars were sawing a hole from beneath a wooden floor. When the pressure in the magma chamber is released through the fractures, the dissolved gases suddenly explode in a massive, runaway reaction. It's like "opening the Coke bottle after you've shaken it," says Bob Christiansen, a U.S. Geological Survey scientist who pioneered research on the Yellowstone volcano in the 1960s. With the magma chamber emptied, the surface collapses. The entire domed region simply falls into the planet, as though the Earth were consuming itself. Left behind is a giant caldera, from the Spanish word for "cauldron."
The "hot spot" responsible for the Yellowstone caldera has erupted dozens of times in the past, going back some 18 million years. Since the hot spot is rooted deep in the Earth, and the tectonic plate above it is moving southwest, ghostly calderas from the more ancient explosions are strung out like a series of gigantic beads across southern Idaho and into Oregon and Nevada, the subsequent lava flows forming the eerie moonscapes of the Snake River Plain.
The last three super-eruptions have been in Yellowstone itself. The most recent, 640,000 years ago, was a thousand times the size of the Mount St. Helens eruption in 1980, which killed 57 people in Washington. But numbers do not capture the full scope of the mayhem. Scientists calculate that the pillar of ash from the Yellowstone explosion rose some 100,000 feet, leaving a layer of debris across the West all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Pyroclastic flows—dense, lethal fogs of ash, rocks, and gas, superheated to 1,470 degrees Fahrenheit—rolled across the landscape in towering gray clouds. The clouds filled entire valleys with hundreds of feet of material so hot and heavy that it welded itself like asphalt across the once verdant landscape. And this wasn't even Yellowstone's most violent moment. An eruption 2.1 million years ago was more than twice as strong, leaving a hole in the ground the size of Rhode Island. In between, 1.3 million years ago, was a smaller but still devastating eruption.