Documentary by local filmmaker predicts largest natural disaster in North American recorded history

By Meghan Balogh, Napanee Guide

A local documentary filmmaker says a supervolcano located under Yellowstone National Park in the United States is due to erupt with cataclysmic results for North America and beyond. Dave Brady Production

KINGSTON – A local documentary filmmaker says a supervolcano located under Yellowstone National Park in the United States is due to erupt with cataclysmic results for North America and beyond.

Having taken a closer look through his documentary, Supervolcano: Yellowstone’s Fury, Dave Brady, a film and documentary writer and producer who lives part-time in Sandhurst, south of Napanee, says that it is not a matter of ‘if’ the Yellowstone supervolcano will erupt, but ‘when’.

Geologically, it’s due for another eruption, and Brady says that the warning signs could very well point to an event in the near future.

“It’s actually very frightening,” says Brady. “What’s frightening about it is that this is not hypothetical. It’s not something like what we just went through with the whole nonsense of the Mayan calendar. This is based on hard science, and the facts are it is a ticking time bomb and it will go off. There’s no doubt about it. There is not a single earth scientist of any legitimacy that will not confirm that it’s going to go off.”

An eruption from Yellowstone would, the documentary states, be equivalent to the detonation of 1,000 nuclear bombs and potentially affect 200 million people, with a huge loss of life.

It would be the largest natural disaster in North America in recorded history.

“The question is, have some of the warning signs begun? That’s what we’re looking at,” Brady said.

The documentary had its world premiere release last week, as it aired on CBC’s Doc Zone on Thursday.

The one-hour film is directed and co-written by Marianne Alton and co-produced by Kingston’s Michael Wheeler, who has produced nine films with Brady, including The Pagan Christ, The Sky’s the Limit and Yonge Street: Toronto Rock & Roll Series.

With a budget similar in bulk to a feature-length film, the documentary presents chilling facts examining a volcanic system that lies beneath Yellowstone National Park in the western U.S., an historic park known as the home to the largest concentration of geysers in the world. Those geysers, while spectacular, do little to represent the monstrous magma chamber that resides beneath the park — it’s one of the largest volcanic systems on earth, and has been identified as a supervolcano that has consistently erupted approximately every 600,000 to 800,000 years.

Most recently, it erupted 640,000 years ago, creating an 80 km-by-50 km caldera upon which part of Yellowstone sits.

Seismic activity has increased in the location in recent years, including a dramatic increase in earthquakes over the region.

The documentary features interviews with geological experts such as Lori Dengler, a professor at Humboldt State University in California, and a foremost expert in the world on earthquakes and volcanoes.

“Her point is that you would see a really significant rise in earthquakes, prior to an eruption. When you go from a few thousand in a year to 4,000 in a week, which they had here less than 18 months ago, geologically that’s a nanosecond,” he said.

Also, the surface of the caldera — the vast range flattened by the last eruption — is steadily rising.

“That whole caldera rose 25 cm — 80 km of earth rising and then deflating. It’s terrifying, what kind of force could push that up?” marvels Brady. “Well, 725 km of magma, 100 metres below the earth’s surface. The power of that is beyond anything we can imagine.”

The wide-reaching effects of an eruption in Yellowstone are just beginning to be understood. With ash shooting up into the stratosphere up to 30 km above the earth’s surface, ash could be carried across North America and to Europe in a matter of days. More than nine feet of ash would cover nearly a 100-km radius surrounding the eruption site, with zero chance of survivability without evacuation. Cities in Canada’s western provinces would receive a devastating amount of ash. Even eastern Ontario could expect one centimetre of ash, which is enough to severely damage water and food sources, motorized vehicles, buildings — the necessities of daily life.

Across North America, crops would be destroyed or damaged, water sources contaminated. Climate would be affected by ash and sulphuric acid, suspended in the atmosphere for years and causing significantly lower temperatures for years. Ash also has terrible health costs associated with breathing the microscopic shards of what appear to be glass under a microscope.

“No one can comprehend the magnitude of it, because it is incomprehensible. It would be so enormous,” he says.

The socio-economic impact would indeed change the way North Americans live.

“The great thing about we as a species is that we’re remarkably adaptable, and we would have to be. Anybody in the weight watchers business would be out of business — there would be no abundance of anything. We’d go back to a very primitive diet that would be sufficient to keep us alive. It would take five to six years to have a normal growing season. Automobiles would come to a halt, anything dependant on air to run. You would have to wear goggles and a respirator to go for a walk.”

Only recently have scientists created computer-generated models showing where the jet stream could carry massive amounts of ash. Those areas have been divided into six zones, the largest of which covers the bulk of southern Canada, and the north and central regions of the United States.

Environment Canada staff in Montreal recently did that modelling, and it’s changed the knowledge base of where previous eruptions have caused devastating effects.

“Now, as a result of that modelling, they are looking in places they’d never looked and they are discovering ash,” says Brady, citing discoveries of ash deposits in Saskatchewan that were up to three feet deep. That ash most likely came from the last eruption in Yellowstone, giving physical evidence of the widespread distribution of destructive ash that would occur after an eruption.

Brady says that while the inevitability of this disaster is overwhelming, people should still do what they can to be prepared.

“People need to plan for this kind of catastrophic event, because at some point it’s going to happen. And while we don’t want it to happen in our lifetimes, our children’s or grandkids lifetimes, it’s going to happen. So what do you do to minimize the damage? What steps can we take on a practical level to survive?”

It’s something he’s thought about since spending two years on the documentary, and while he doesn’t self-identify as a survivalist, he’s got some ideas.

“I’ve changed my water system at my house. I have canned food to get through a couple of weeks, and I keep backup drinking water to last a month — something I’ve never done in my life before,” he said.

“Having flashlights, candles, blankets, having the things that you need to make it through, fresh water, food. I would say that anybody that doesn’t have that is foolish.”

And on a larger scale, the United States and Canada need to put official emergency supplies in place, backup food and water supplies and emergency response stations that are ready for this, or any other, cataclysmic disaster.

“For FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) in the U.S., this is one of their top concerns.”

Canada isn’t as concerned so far, but that needs to change, says Brady.

“There’s no point in becoming neurotic about it, or fearful. What we need to do is get the Canadian government to recognize that this is a legitimate concern ….

“It is as active as a supervolcano can be prior to eruption.”

Supervolcano: Yellowstone’s Fury airs on CBC Saturday, Jan. 12, at 7 p.m., and at 11 p.m. the same evening on CBC News Network.

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