Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


Peripheral Hope
by Derrick Boden

by M. Luke McDonell

Penal Eyes
by Frederick Obermeyer

Tells of the Block Widowers
by Jez Patterson

Cretaceous on Ice
by K.C. Ball

Some Quiet Time
by Eric Cline

Three Breaths
by Karl Dandenell

by Kathleen Molyneaux

Shorter Stories

Left Hand Awakens
by Beth Cato

Laws of Humanity
by Alexandra Grunberg

Aggressive Recruiting
by Drew Williams


Remakes, Sequels Sizzle in 2017
by Joshua Berlow

Calderas: Doomsday Underfoot
by John McCormick



Comic Strips





Calderas: Doomsday Underfoot

By John McCormick

IT WAS A WARM JUNE MORNING; the kids were anxious to play but you told them that they would see something remarkable this morning, so the whole family left the campgrounds and drove to the viewing area lot for Old Faithful.

The kids are paying a bit more attention to us today. Yesterday we saw a young girl stand frozen to the spot when she encountered a bear cub. A minute later a man walked up to her, shooed the cub away, and then laughed at the girl’s fear.

Apparently he didn’t realize that one of the most dangerous animals in the park is a bear cub; the smaller and younger the cub, the more dangerous it is—it isn't the cub you need to be concerned with, it's the mother bear who will attack any person or animal she feels might be a threat to her cub and that often includes anyone even near the cub.

But the kids have seen adult bears so at least they now pay a bit more attention to what we tell them—that should, with any luck, last a day or two.

About eleven a.m. the next geyser eruption would take place and, despite Old Faithful only being moderately reliable, it was expected to erupt within ten or fifteen minutes.

There were even a few rumbles and the ground actually vibrated a few minutes ago; however, nothing else happened and the park service ranger was beginning to go into her third repetition of the description of what you should have seen by now.

Despite the myth that gave the geyser its name, Old Faithful isn't on a strict schedule—time between eruptions varies from about a half hour to every two hours, and it continues spewing steam and water for about a minute. Occasionally the eruption lasts as long as five or six minutes, shooting steam and boiling hot water high in the air.

But before the kids could start complaining too loudly the ground gave a sudden quick jerk; not enough to make anyone fall over, but enough to get the attention of a half-dozen car alarms over in the parking lot.

As you walked over to shut your alarm off there was a distant, then not so distant, rumbling that turned out to be nothing more than animals moving away from the heart of the park to elsewhere—any place but Yellowstone seemed to be their destination.

Overhead a flock of birds was headed in the same direction, away from the center of the park, and by now the park ranger was telling people to go to their cars for safety from the clearly disturbed animals.

Old Faithful, now an hour overdue, was clearly off schedule and the kids were clamoring so you headed to the nearest place to eat, only to find the power was off in the restaurant.

At about the same time over in Italy, an artist wanting to study the remains of Pompeii, especially the graffiti and murals, was heading back from the archeological site to the hotel in Naples for an evening on the town.

One of the two, the family in Yellowstone or the artist heading to Naples, will die in an hour, along with 5,000 tourists in the western U.S. or about 400,000 people in Napoli. But that is only the beginning.

Natural Attractions

Nature can be beautiful; but often it seems the most beautiful parts of nature are also the most dangerous.

Consider the Bengal tiger, arguably the most beautiful animal on the planet (a few supermodels aside). Not a good choice for a house pet, however.

And it isn’t just animals; nature can be at its most beautiful when a landscape beckons people to visit or even live there because of the view and the weather. How else can you explain why people keep moving to Los Angeles when it is a certain fact that the city will eventually suffer a massive earthquake that will kill a lot of people and destroy most homes? The only question is when. And it isn’t as if the people living there could have any doubts about the danger because they experience small earthquakes on a regular basis.

Dark Future

A lot of science fiction stories are built around disasters. The prevalence of dystopian themes isn’t because writers in general are depressed from having to work so hard and sell so little.

Dark science fiction is popular among authors for two major reasons—science fiction writers generally know quite a bit about science, and are therefore more knowledgeable about the many potential calamities facing mankind.

From a literary standpoint, there is little reason to write about sweetness and light beyond children’s stories, at least the ones that aren’t thinly veiled morality plays showing what can happen to “bad” or disobedient children.

There is simply no conflict for characters to overcome if there is no danger or threat to them or their families, or the world.

Real World Disaster Scenario

Despite all the talk about threats from California sliding into the ocean (completely wrong; the faults near Los Angeles move north/south against each other—they don’t form a subduction zone so nothing will sink) or near Earth objects as big as a mountain causing another extinction like the one that occurred sixty-five million years ago (the end of the Cretaceous period). The biggest threat to humanity as a whole is the next of the periodic supervolcano eruptions. A solar event will likely wipe out all electronics every 150 years or so but that won’t directly harm the planet.

The supervolcano eruptions, on the other hand, happen on average about every 100,000 years and it isn’t any coincidence that the last glacial period (ice age) began about 100,000 years ago around the time when the last supervolcano eruption occurred—in Toba, Sumatra.

That eruption caused such a disastrous change in the world’s climate that it actually reduced human populations and altered human DNA.

Yellowstone National Park is another undeniably beautiful location, although not one suitable for building a large city. Even if it weren’t a national park, the area isn’t that attractive as a home for most people.

On the other hand there is Southern Italy, particularly Napoli, the region surrounding the city of Naples. What could be more pleasant than visiting Napoli?

Unlike Yellowstone, Naples is not only a great tourist attraction, it is also a wonderful place to live; how else could you explain the ever-increasing population despite an almost one hundred percent guarantee that someday almost everyone living there will die in only a few hours with virtually no warning?

They also can’t be ignorant of the danger because they live close to two museums of disaster: the dead cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Even given the stark evidence of those two cities where residents died in mid-step, people still build and stay in that area.

Unlike Los Angeles where Mother Nature gives the ground a bit of a shake periodically as a warning that always goes unheeded, there is no obvious danger in Naples other than those 2,000-year-old excavated cities which everyone sees and knows about but doesn’t seem to see any connection with their own lives.

Naples, like Yellowstone and several other locations around the world, is co-located with some of the most gigantic supervolcanoes that ever erupted. And they are dormant, not extinct—they just aren’t very active right now.

You can tell Yellowstone isn’t dormant just by looking at all the geysers, and right now the giant volcano next door to Naples is showing signs of waking up.

People can be forgiven for building in Naples centuries ago, before archeologists had found Pompeii and geologists had satellite photos to work with, because just standing in the city you can’t see a big volcano, or can you? Yep, there it is, Mount Vesuvius, but if you aren’t a geologist you don’t know it is a volcano; it’s just another mountain. So over the centuries the area around Naples grew and grew in population and people didn’t give Vesuvius much thought because it was quite a distance away on the horizon and Pompeii was on the other side of the mountain from Naples. But the more recently discovered Herculaneum is on the Bay of Naples.

Just like Yellowstone, there is much more to this volcano, the only active volcano in Europe, than meets the eye. If Vesuvius erupted on the same scale as the disaster that wiped out some local towns twenty centuries ago, it would be a local disaster, one occurring so quickly that if people ignored the very first warnings they couldn’t outrun it even in cars or boats. There are local disasters all the time. In fact, The National Geographic Society says there are about fifty eruptions each year and that since 1980 the 1,500 active volcanoes on Earth have killed many thousands of people and devastated several heavily populated areas.

Below the Surface

Unfortunately, standing in Naples, or standing in Yellowstone Park, you can’t see the real danger, or people might not be willing to live there no matter how nice is the area surrounding the Bay of Naples. It isn’t one of the small volcanoes such as Vesuvius that is the global danger; it is the caldera underlying the region.

The Yellowstone supervolcano is so enormous that the last time it erupted, it didn’t build up the characteristic volcanic cone (like Mt. St. Helens calderaor Mt. Vesuvius) into a respectable mountain people could marvel at—rather, it exploded so violently that all that remained was a gigantic crater so large that standing in the middle you can’t even see the rims. The real volcanoes under Yellowstone and also under Napoli are so far beyond human scale that even being there you don’t grasp the enormity of them.

[Right, mechanism behind the Yellowstone caldera. Image by Agil Leonardo, Shutterstock.]

The crater left by the last big eruption at Yellowstone 650 thousand years ago covers 1,500 square miles. Let me repeat that because it is so large that it is hard to imagine. The crater left after the eruption, not the area of destruction, just the hole left like the tiny crater you normally see at the top of volcanic mountains is sixty-five times larger than the measly 22.5 square miles that make up Manhattan.

The damage area from that and every other supervolcanic eruption was worldwide when you consider the damage caused by volcanic dust cooling the Earth by creating shade. The Yellowstone volcano belched up 240 cubic miles of earth into the air; that’s a chunk of rock approximately six miles on a side and six miles high.

Back to Italy

Yellowstone isn’t the only supervolcano waiting to wipe out humanity.

The Campi Flegrei crater extends six miles west of Naples. That supervolcano has erupted many times starting about 200,000 years ago and again 40,000 and 12,000 years ago; the one that occurred 40,000 years ago probably contributed to the extinction of the Neanderthals. Compared to those eruptions the one which destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum was a burp.

The last notable (actually minor) eruption near Naples took place in 1538 and created Monte Nuovo; however, for the past five hundred years Campi Flegrei has been quiet, until 2016. Recently there has been movement of the molten rock that fills the caldera beneath the crater surface.

Today about 600,000 people live in the area considered highly dangerous by volcanologists who also say that Vesuvius is overdue for another eruption. Although they are confident about this occurring, volcanologists make no prediction about the next time the supervolcano will explode; they just say it is inevitable.

The danger posed by Vesuvius isn’t any secret. The Italian national government has evacuation plans for the most endangered nine-mile radius around the volcano and even offered $49,000 to any homeowner willing to relocate out of the danger area—almost no one accepted the offer.

It turns out that Vesuvius has erupted before; about 3,000 years before the 79 A.D. eruption, Vesuvius had such a violent blowout that it turned southern Italy into a desert for hundreds of years. It’s important to remember just why Pompeii was completely forgotten except in Pliny the Younger’s description. There was no trace of it on the ground and the entire area was uninhabitable for hundreds of years after the relatively minor eruption that destroyed the local Roman resort area. Another eruption occurred in 1630; that one killed upwards of 4,000 people.

The last time Vesuvius erupted was almost unnoticed by the world because it occurred in 1944, during WW II, and was relatively minor, killing only twenty-six people. But experts don’t expect the overdue eruption to be that minor because the caldera of molten rock underneath Vesuvius measures about ninety-three square miles and is of unknown depth and quite large. Volcanologists also believe the next eruption will be violent, expelling massive boulders as well as the poison gases that killed the people of Pompeii.

But as bad as that seems, remember that Vesuvius is a small volcano. Vesuvius isn’t the supervolcano, it is a minor geological event. If the supervolcano blew it would cause a massive tsunami in the Mediterranean, completely obliterate Naples and probably even Vesuvius itself, as well as pour cubic miles of dust and dirt into the atmosphere, thereby poisoning the fish in the surrounding waters and possibly triggering another ice age.

While geologists and volcanologists (no relation to Mr. Spock) in particular can’t predict exactly when a volcano will erupt again, they are pretty accurate when it comes to estimating just how severe the next eruption will be and they are all saying the next one, when it comes, will be big. Not supervolcano big, but big enough to perhaps threaten the city of Naples with flying rocks traveling one hundred miles per hour or more. So if it is a violent eruption there may be no warning unless you happen to be looking at the mountain, because the sound will only arrive a very short time before the first projectiles.

When Yellowstone blows, which some geologists say is overdue, it will be the big one, the caldera under Yellowstone will erupt producing another of the major geologic and ecological events which follow every supervolcano eruption.

Eight percent of the world’s population lives near active volcanoes. Not just the calm, quiet Hawaiian volcanoes that destroy entire rural villages from time to time but do it so slowly that people can simply walk ahead of the lava flow. The real threat on a global scale is the next supervolcano which appears to be Yellowstone.


With all the energy contained in a giant magma pool which makes up the caldera that produces supervolcanoes, it would seem obvious that we should tap that energy, if possible; in Iceland they do just that.

Iceland leads the world in “renewable” energy, although it isn’t renewed; the country simply taps into the geothermal energy of the planet’s hot core.

This tapping of the magma held in small or large calderas is nothing new—since 1977 Iceland has been producing sixty megawatts of electricity from the heat stored in the six-square-mile caldera lying beneath the ground.

Magma pools in Iceland are among the most shallow in the world, with liquid rock as little as one mile below ground level.

Here in the U.S. there is a federal law against exploiting the geothermal energy in national parks.

Where it is being done, however, it provides cheap, non-polluting energy and just possibly might reduce slightly the chance of an eruption, although that latter point is unlikely because humans could barely make a dent in the energy contained in hundreds of cubic miles of melted rock.

If it could, Yellowstone would be a great place to start because when it erupts the next time it will likely cover about half of the continental U.S. with volcanic ash and make the air dangerous to breathe over a much larger area.

It is conceivable that a massive project to utilize the heat under Yellowstone could provide enough geothermal power to run Canada, the U.S., and probably Central America for centuries while, at the same time, siphoning off enough of the energy buildup to prevent the catastrophic eruption which will eventually take place.

Compound Threat

Although giant asteroids large enough to cause major destruction on Earth are actually quite rare, smaller meteors strike Earth all the time, mostly in the oceans or other bodies of water; after all, four-fifths of the planet is covered by water.

Why don’t we see these hitting all the time? Well, news is obviously about people and nearly one-half of the total world population lives on just one percent of the land area in giant cities; the chance of a meteor hitting a city is the same odds—one percent.

These asteroids get a lot of attention in Hollywood and even in the mainstream media when they come close, but it doesn’t take a mountain-sized meteor to cause an extinction level event.

Consider if one of these relatively small meteors hit one of the world’s supervolcano calderas. If that happened it would trigger an eruption which could end all human life on Earth. the end

John McCormick is a physical science and technology journalist, and author with more than 17,000 bylines to his credit. He is a member of The National Press Club and the AAAS. He recently launched the canine celebrating website, A to Z Dogs.


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