Well, I've just finished scaring myself to death watching Supervolcano, a BBC docudrama from 2005 that extrapolates what would happen if the massive volcanic caldera which is Yellowstone National Park erupted with a V.E.I. 8 magnitude. I've always been vaguely fascinated by volcanos, and I stumbled across Supervolcano during some random Googling around during a slow moment at Darkovercon. It's on YouTube in twelve parts, starting here:
Basically, it's a piece of near-future disaster science fiction in which the science is, unfortunately, not at all fictional.
Fact: It's been over 600,000 years since the last big one
Fact: This could all happen tomorrow. Or not for thousands more years.
It's the former possibility that is more than slightly disturbing, because the thing with volcanos is that we can't do a damned thing to stop them. All we can do is get out of the way. In the case of a V.E.I. 8 eruption, the majority of the United States would be entirely in the way, with highly fatal results due not only to the volcano itself but to the crushing load of ash it would deposit and the resulting failure of everything from the electrical grid to the structural integrity of buildings to food production. So, one could be quickly incinerated, crushed in a building, choked to death by ash, or simply starve to death in the immediate aftermath before help can get there. There's plenty of helpful background information on the BBC Supervolcano page
It's very minimal comfort that the east coast is likely to see only minor effects: a centimeter or two of ash. That will not help us or the rest of the world avoid a mini-ice age and a disruption of weather patterns that will alternately result in torrential rainfall (floods) and the possible failure of the the Indian monsoons (drought), depending on your location. It's speculated that supervolcano eruptions of this magnitude caused global extinction events.
I'm sort of retroactively stunned that a few months ago I flew halfway around the world to vacation in, among other places, Rotorua, right in the vicinity of another supervolcano (the Taupo Volcanic Zone), and to walk around geothermal areas full of hot springs, bubbling mud, geysers, and colorful pools. Areas just like Yellowstone, in other words. Just as well, since after watching this thing I may never work up the nerve to visit Yellowstone for fear of it blowing up under my feet.
The drama itself is entirely predictable. Calm and rational scientists point out that the odds are against this eruption happening. A Cassandra-like journalist keeps pointing out that it could happen. It happens. Scientists become markedly less calm and then die. So do lots of other people. FEMA and DHS are basically helpless against an event of this magnitude -- how exactly do you handle 25 million refugees, especially when airspace is closed due to ash? Despite knowing what's going to happen, the show does a good job maintaining white-knuckle suspense as it follows a U.S. Geological Service scientist (the rather yummy Michael Riley, left) in flashback through the days leading up to the eruption until he is trapped in the death zone of the ash cloud during the eruption itself. Cheap emotional shots like putting the cute kid in danger are avoided. It doesn't need them. It still scared the crap out of me. For all our civilization and technology, we are living under a comforting illusion that we actually control our destinies. We are essentially helpless against geological forces which could destroy us any time. Existential panic, anyone?
It's well worth watching, and you can see it for free on YouTube via the video above -- go to the YouTube page and links for further parts will come up -- or buy it for yourself: