Nowhere to hide
No smoke without fire: special effects chillingly illustrate the supervolcano.
Be afraid, be very afraid, writes Michael Idato, it's just a matter of time before a supervolcano erupts.
Supervolcano opens with an ominous twist on a cliche: this is a true story, it just hasn't happened yet. The BBC program is a documentary-drama hybrid in the tradition of Pompeii: The Last Day and Colosseum and suggests the seeds of doomsday lie under the pristine wilderness of Yellowstone National Park in the form of a supervolcano.
There are about 40 known supervolcanoes around the world, though most are extinct. The last one erupted 74,000 years ago at Lake Toba, Sumatra, and the nearest to us is Lake Taupo, on the North Island of New Zealand. By far the most dangerous, however, lies beneath Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. This time bomb has erupted three times, 2.1 million years ago, 1.3 million years ago and 640,000 years ago, a cycle that suggests the next eruption is due. This is what happens in Supervolcano.
"It is a true story in that Yellowstone is going to erupt again," says Supervolcano's producer Ailsa Orr. "The reason we chose it over other supervolcanoes is that it goes with some regularity every 600,000-700,000 years."
Supervolcano is set in the near future and employs breathtaking special effects to dramatise events before and after a catastrophic eruption. As drama it is compelling, but as documentary it is frightening, throwing fact after unsettling fact at the viewer. The first super-eruption at Yellowstone ejected into the atmosphere 2500 times more volcanic material than the Mount St Helens eruption of 1980; the ground beneath Yellowstone could hold more than 25,000 cubic kilometres of molten rock; an eruption could send as much as 2 billion tonnes of sulphuric acid into the stratosphere; and the death toll from a Yellowstone super-eruption would top 1 billion people. And that's just for starters.
The reaction to this information, says Orr, is generally disbelief. "And understandably so," she adds. "Two years ago, when this film was first suggested to me, I didn't know what a supervolcano was and once I found out my reaction was the same. Why don't people know about these things? This is something we should all know about."
Orr, who has worked mainly on science documentaries (Neanderthal, Threads of Life), was more recently involved in the BBC's groundbreaking Walking with Dinosaurs and co-produced Pompeii with Dr Michael Mosley.
To tell the story of the Yellowstone supervolcano, Orr says, docu-drama was the obvious method. "We all felt this was an incredibly important story to tell and the best way to tell it - because it deals with difficult science that you can't really see - was to dramatise it."
To construct a dramatic shell for the documentary, it was important to find the line between fact and fiction. "The question we kept asking ourselves was, 'What is this based on?' If we couldn't answer that question, then it was a leap too far. I am confident there is nothing in this film I cannot justify. I can base it on a conversation or a simulation, or a piece of research that was done for us."
The production team spent eight months researching the project, their first stops being the US Geological Survey and the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory. "We sat down with them and explained what we wanted to do. We worked through the scenario: how big it would be, what form it would take, over how many days, how much material would be ejected, what regions would be worst hit," Orr says.
The production team also visited America's Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which responds to national disasters, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). "We took the scenario we had built to the FEMA in Washington and said, 'OK, we have this scenario, how would you deal with it?' And their jaws hit the floor."
Supervolcano, much like Pompeii, uses many of the techniques and tricks of traditional filmmaking to enhance its impact, including tight edits, expensive special effects and a powerful score from composer Ty Unwin.
"We have used the rules of documentary and drama to create this hybrid," Orr explains. "It is a drama, but it feels like a documentary in many ways when you consider what it could have felt like: that is, The Day After Tomorrow or one of those feature films that bend and contort the truth beyond all recognition."
The script was written by Edward Canfor-Dumas, who worked on Pompeii. Orr admits there was some creative wrangling over the use of dramatic devices such as talk-to-camera testimonials to back up dramatic twists with factual evidence. "He felt we didn't need to do those pieces to camera. It is a drama, but it is a factual drama and we felt they underpinned and supported the drama. They are strategically placed so that every time there is a big or controversial event, an eruption or a hydrothermal blast, the testimonials justify why they are there."
The result, Orr says, was more collaborative than Pompeii. "We all poured into it what we wanted to do; we learned from him and he learned from us. On Pompeii, to a large degree, we let him do what he normally did on drama; that is, we had very little input into his script. With Supervolcano we pushed it a bit more. Pompeii took the first steps of allowing the characters to speak for themselves. In Supervolcano we have taken the next step in that we have removed the documentary voice."
Instead, the elements of pure documentary were kept for two half-hour accompanying programs, The Truth about Yellowstone, which the ABC is showing in its Catalyst slot, starting on Thursday.
Orr says her next project will take the dramatic process even further, but she doesn't think big-budget immersive docu-dramas will replace the documentary form. "I think in a couple of years these things will have gone out of fashion and we'll be back where we were," she says, "a very traditional way of telling these stories."
That might not be such a bad thing. While Supervolcano is powerful, you can't help notice that its bricks and mortar are actors, directors and a script. The clinical delivery of the same story in The Truth about Yellowstone makes it, in many ways, more frightening.
With two major seismic events in Indonesia in the past few months, scientists are cautiously re-examining the risk posed by Lake Toba. And Lake Taupo in New Zealand, which erupts roughly every 2000 years, is due to go again soon. Considering Yellowstone is 640,000 years into a 600-700,000 cycle, the odds are increasingly against us.
"It could be tomorrow, next year, a thousand years' time or 10,000 years' time," Orr says. "There is no doubt that it is going to happen again, the only variable is when."