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Screw Terrorism, The Supervolcano Will Kill Us All

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The greatest threat to American national security isn't a sleeper cell of terrorists or a homegrown militia. It's not a drug cartel or a criminal conspiracy. It doesn't have a scary face -- or any face at all.

The single biggest danger to America has features that are buried underground, obscured by dense forest, only visible from the air. It's one of the country's most famous landmarks, a symbol of its grandeur and greatness.

Meet the Yellowstone Supervolcano.

This isn't a regular volcano. It's more like a cataclysmic asteroid strike hidden beneath the earth.

But are we worried?

Evolution made us experts at recognizing threats with an angry face, but left us utterly unprepared for coping with the natural menaces that could annihilate us.

We've got an out-of-date operating system that's great at dealing with the neighbouring tribe but lousy for coping with long-term existential threats.

We fear al Qaeda instead of asteroids.

But we're not in the jungle anymore and it's high time humanity paid more attention to the events that have obliterated life in the past.

The last three major eruptions of the massive underground volcano took place 2.1 million, 1.3 million and 640,000 years ago. While geologists stress that eruptions are unpredictable, it's hard not to see a trend here.

The last Yellowstone explosion was around 1,000 times larger than the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. Another major eruption would cause untold damage to the surrounding area. The climate effects from the toxic cloud of ash would threaten the continuity of civilization not just in North America, but around the world.

But we worry about terrorism instead.

President Barack Obama's 2013 budget proposed $1.1 billion in funding for the United States Geological Survey (USGS), which monitors the volcano along with the University of Utah and the National Park Service. About $25 million of that was to monitor volcano hazards across all of the United States, not just Yellowstone.

Meanwhile, Obama's budget requested $672.9 billion for defense, $55.4 billion for the Department of Homeland Security and $52.6 billion for the National Intelligence Agency, of which the CIA is a part. We don't even know how much money goes to the National Security Agency because its budget is secret, but estimates put the number in the $10 billion range.

That's roughly $800 billion for the human threats that drive our bad dreams and mere millions for the natural menace that could wipe America from the map.

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Terrorism is a real danger that shouldn't be ignored. But even the most doomsday terror scenario, a nuclear attack on a major American city, pales in comparison to what will happen if Yellowstone blows its top.

In contrast, most terror attacks are actually not that deadly. Even 9/11, the worst in recent memory, resulted in the deaths of around 3,000 people.

That's not to say that 9/11 wasn't horrific, both for the families of those killed and for the psyche of the American people, but governments must pay attention to all the threats that face us, not just those that come with a face as menacing as Osama bin Laden's.

And Yellowstone is far from the only natural menace more dangerous than terrorists.

An even more terrifying example of America's failure to address non-human threats is the nation's asteroid avoidance apathy (See also: Climate Change).

If you ask the average person if they worry about humanity going the way of the dinosaurs, you'll usually hear that there's no point in worrying about something we can't do anything about.

But asteroids are now well within the realm of things we can do something about.

To its credit, the U.S. Congress has mandated that NASA identify 90 per cent of near-Earth objects larger than 140 metres in diameter.

But that doesn't mean we see everything.

In February, a meteor exploded high above the Russian city of Chelyabinsk with the power of roughly 30 Hiroshima bombs. That object was only about 20 metres in size (though it was larger before part of it burned away on contact with Earth's atmosphere).

Had the asteroid made it to the surface of the planet, the scale of destruction would have been massive. The high-altitude blast still left 1,500 people injured.

There is little to no funding for new orbital telescopes that could better detect objects the size of the Chelyabinsk meteor, let alone money for the various asteroid deflection strategies that have been developed.

Yes, it is possible to divert an asteroid away from Earth or to vaporize it. No, the best strategies don't involve Bruce Willis. Yes, some involve nuclear weapons.

Many scientists suggest we use small spacecraft to subtly affect a planet-killer's trajectory using the force of gravity.

But NASA isn't a huge fan of the trajectory-altering strategies. It prefers nuclear blasts and ramming spacecraft because they are cheaper and don't require "mission durations of many years to decades."

Even when we try to deal with space-age threats we apply caveman logic. HULK SMASH!

Our evolved fears helped keep individual humans alive but never mutated to help humanity as a whole.

Luckily, apes can learn.

We don't have to focus on terrorism just because it scares us. We can use reason and science to make informed decisions about where to put our resources.

Otherwise, it's only a matter of time before it's back to the stone age.