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Central Washington University

CWU Research Associate Shares Expertise on National Geographic Series

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Central Washington University research associate Meaghan Wetherell is featured in the latest episode of the National Geographic series “X-Ray Earth,” where she shared her paleontology expertise with an international audience.

The episode, titled “Volcano Apocalypse,” examines what would happen if the largest volcano on Earth — located beneath Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming — were to blow its top during the modern era. The last time the “supervolcano” erupted was approximately 630,000 years ago, long before humans inhabited the region.

“The program takes a look inside planet Earth to find potential hazards like the Yellowstone volcano,” said Wetherell, a geological sciences lecturer at CWU from 2016-20. (She now teaches online for another university but continues to be involved in CWU research projects.) “If this were to happen again today in a highly populated area, it would be really bad.”

Scientific research indicates that if another large, caldera-forming eruption were to occur at Yellowstone, the impact would be felt worldwide. A giant eruption would contribute to short-term changes to the global climate and would lead to significant ash fall in the region. Residents in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming also would be threatened by pyroclastic flows, which move at high speeds and contain a mix of hot lava blocks, pumice, ash, and volcanic gas. 

“The last time an eruption occurred there, animals were killed, but not all of them died right away,” Wetherell said. “Larger animals like rhinos, camels, and horses died over time due to ash inhalation. We think the long-term effects of ash inhalation would be similar for humans.”

Wetherell was one of the scientists who filmed on location last year for “X-Ray Earth,” studying fossilized remains of rhinoceroses at a preserved watering hole in Nebraska. She explained that the rhinos also ingested the volcanic ash when it settled on the plants they ate.

“I have studied animals in fossil beds before, but until this shoot, I hadn’t studied the effects of ash fall,” said Wetherell, who also works as a script writer for the “Eons” program on Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). “The site was pretty amazing, and it was exciting to be part of a project like this.”

Episode 3 of the “X-Ray Earth” series aired on nationalgeographic.com/tv in August, but the program can only be viewed by those who pay for television service.

Media contact: David Leder, Department of Public Affairs; David.Leder@cwu.edu, 509-963-1518.

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