Film about super volcanic eruption a model to follow


Ordinarily I’m not a fan of the film form known as “docudrama.” Particularly those in which the facts are overwhelmed by the drama. Generally made for TV and scripted around sketchy facts, they might better be called dramadocs.

So it was with some trepidation I tuned in the Discovery Channel Sunday to watch “Supervolcano,” a fictional account of a cataclysmic eruption in Yellowstone National Park.

About two million years ago the Huckleberry Ridge eruption, the largest in Yellowstone’s history, spewed deadly clouds of ash, plunging half the continent into a nuclear winter. It blew holes 60 miles wide through mountain ranges and spread a layer of rock hundreds of yards thick, forever changing the landscape of southwestern Montana and parts of Wyoming and Idaho. It also left a hole the size of Rhode Island, the caldera, which is now virtually all of Yellowstone. Of course, there weren’t a lot of folks around to witness that one. But geologists have pieced together a credible record of how it went. For the most part, they say the film is technically correct but based on an extremely unlikely event.

That said, it should be noted that two smaller eruptions occurred since Huckleberry Ridge. One, 1.3 million years ago, was 280 times larger than Mount St. Helens, and the most recent, 630,000 years ago, was 1,000 times larger. Based on only these three events-700,000 years apart-some predict that the volcano beneath Yellowstone is due for another. It is still active and is responsible for the park’s 10,000 geothermal features from the Paint Pots to Old Faithful, which is neither the oldest nor the most faithful, it just gets the best press.

The film projects a worst-case scenario with the probable effects on a 21st century population: air traffic, national defense, communications, food and water supplies and, ultimately, climate change. Producers for the BBC and Discovery consulted with dozens of experts: geologists, climatologists and national leaders of public health and disaster relief agencies. Henry Heasler, Yellowstone’s lead geologist, said they were more than happy to be involved so the film would be as accurate as possible.

Bearing in mind that nobody has ever seen such a massive caldera-forming eruption, the computer-generated images are based on speculation and film of lesser eruptions.

My hat’s off to the casting director, who provided us with geologists who actually looked like scientists (no clean-shaven DiCaprio or Pitt punching up computer models). A woman played the FEMA director, and there was a quick reference to the president flying in Air Force One to a Florida bunker because “she” couldn’t be expected to run the country from D.C., buried in ash as it was.

As always, there is a certain redundancy in replaying images of molten lava, clouds of rock, debris and ash roaring down canyons, and huge atomic-like explosions. We can forgive them that because the shots of geologists examining thermal features in the park and reading sensors and pouring over computer models seem so real.

Former NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw, who now lives just a few miles from the park’s northern entrance, hosted a scientific discussion with Yellowstone geologists which was shown following the two-hour film. Brokaw conducts the interviews walking with the scientists around the park’s thermal features and discussing recent changes to the topography around Yellowstone Lake that may be caused by seismic activity and may or may not portend a volcanic eruption.

They also review the deaths last year of several bison, which were apparently overcome by noxious gasses trapped close to the ground by unusually cold air. In the film, herds of bison stampede and flocks of birds fly off before the first vent erupts.

Living for part of the year now just a few miles from the park, and having photographed many of these sites, my curiosity was piqued. I watched the film and the Brokaw interviews all the way through without losing interest even once. Then I watched the whole thing again.

If we have to have docudramas, “Supervolcano” is surely the model to follow.