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Our tenuous life on Earth

  • 3 min to read
David Christy

Tambora, Mount Toba, Kyushu, Karymshina, Pastos Grandes, Campi Flegrei, La Garita and Yellowstone.

Have you heard of some of these places on Earth? Well, I’m quite sure most have heard of Yellowstone, but unless you are volcanologist or historian with a bent toward the history of volcanoes across the globe, most would probably fail the test in identification.

I was watching an interesting History Channel piece on super volcanoes and a super eruption that may have doomed our pre-history cousins the Neanderthal. After a quick reference check online, I found the names of volcanoes or their remnant that open this column.

According to The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Neanderthals (the “th” is pronounced “t”) made and used a diverse set of sophisticated tools, controlled fire, lived in shelters, made and wore clothing, were skilled hunters of large animals, ate plant foods and made symbolic or ornamental objects.

There is evidence Neanderthals deliberately buried their dead and occasionally marked their graves with offerings, such as flowers.

The Smithsonian noted no other primates, and no earlier human species, had ever practiced this sophisticated, symbolic behavior.

OK, even without a PhD, the average person can pretty much conclude this race or species of humanoids relate to us today.

But, at a point in pre-history about 40,000 years ago, give or take a few thousand years, Neanderthals ceased to exist.

Which brings us back to super volcanoes and, in particular, the super volcano Campi Flegrei, mostly off the coast of Naples, Italy.

Something wiped out Neanderthals, be it weather or genetic abnormalities, disease, Homo Sapiens or any number of inhospitable ways for people to die off. 

Considerable volcanic ash evidence has been found and accumulated that a massive eruption of the Campi Flegrei super volcano wiped out much of the Neanderthals about 36,000 years ago.

Thick layers of ash, yards deep, have been found in many areas near and spreading north and eastward from Campi Flegrei into Europe and beyond.

Did a super volcano eruption doom Neanderthals to extinction throughout much of Europe?

The jury is still out on that, but it certainly is intriguing to study and to ponder.

Many volcanologists and scientists have been finding indications that super volcanoes have had more than a little impact on Planet Earth, on its human, plant and animal species throughout history — in particular before recorded history.

Great eruptions documented of Tambora in 1815 and Krakatoa in 1883 were cataclysmic for nearby populations, and affected weather for years over the entire world.

Take just the eruption of the Indonesian super volcano Mount Toba, about 74,000 years ago.

It was catastrophic and has been classified as the largest volcanic eruption in over 2 million years.

It covered present-day India, Pakistan and the Persian Gulf in 3 to 15 feet of ash.

Volcanic winter followed and lasted a decade — 1,000 years of global cooling followed — and nearly wiped out the human race.

North America and the United States alone have four super volcanoes within our borders.

And, it’s always fascinated me as to why the continental United States was so long overlooked by other countries and nations across the globe — ancient civilizations like China, the Egyptians, Greeks and other great cultures that existed back in the depths of history — so long ignored this continent.

Could it be what now is the United States had been long ago devastated and de-populated by some great super volcano eruption?

The four super volcanoes in North America are the La Garita Caldera in Colorado, Long Valley Caldera in California, the Valles Caldera in New Mexico and of course, the granddaddy of all super volcano sites, what now is Yellowstone National Park.

It is unique in its scenery, geography and geology, and a place millions have visited to see sights like the geyser Old Faithful and Geyser Basin.

Old Faithful, in fact, was discovered only in 1870 — five years after the American Civil War — by the Washburn Expedition into that area of Wyoming.

Old Faithful is a reminder of when Yellowstone last exploded as a super volcano about 630,000 years ago.

It is named that for its frequent and fairly predictable skyward eruptions of boiling water and steam. Yellowstone became an anomaly for the study of volcanoes — the world’s first national park in 1872.

Scientists say there have been three super eruptions of Yellowstone — 2 million years ago, 1.2 million and the 630,000 years ago.

And, it is due for another eruption.

They don’t think it will erupt anytime soon, but if it did, it would dump enough ash across the U.S. to pretty much wipe out this nation and its inhabitants.

Yellowstone — and super volcanoes — are a reminder of how tenuous life is on Planet Earth.

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Christy is news editor in charge of the layout desk and a columnist for the Enid News & Eagle. He can be reached at davidc@enidnews.com.