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"Supervolcano" underneath Yellowstone

Yellowstone won’t erupt… yet


By Joshua Hill—— Bio and Archives--November 13, 2007

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Whenever a scientist comes out and says “The bottom line is…” and warns off the likelihood of a cataclysmic event of some sort, you better believe there is a good story somewhere behind that dismissal.

The same can be said for this story, regarding the recent rise of Yellowstone National Park, located (mostly) in Wyoming. The story focuses on a report from scientists at the University of Utah, who have shown that the “supervolcano” underneath Yellowstone has risen at a record rate since mid-2004.

Apparently, a “pancake-shaped blob” of molten rock was pressed in to the slumbering volcano, some 6 miles down, and the size of Los Angeles.

“There is no evidence of an imminent volcanic eruption or hydrothermal explosion. That’s the bottom line,” says seismologist Robert B. Smith, lead author of the study and professor of geophysics at the University of Utah. “A lot of calderas [giant volcanic craters] worldwide go up and down over decades without erupting.”

Well, there it is. Thankfully, we have nothing to fear, right?

Well, apart from the human fascination with things going “kablooie,” we really don’t have anything to worry about (especially if we don’t live in the US).

The November 9th issue of the journal Science reported that the caldera floor of the massive volcano has risen 3 inches, per year, for the past three years. This is a rate of growth three times more rapid than ever observed, since records were first kept back in 1923.

“Our best evidence is that the crustal magma chamber is filling with molten rock,” Smith says. “But we have no idea how long this process goes on before there either is an eruption or the inflow of molten rock stops and the caldera deflates again,” he adds.

A brief history lesson on Yellowstone shows us an area that crosses over the Wyoming border in to Montana and Idaho, and holds North America’s record as being the largest volcanic field. Produced by a “hotspot” that comes in to existence 400 miles beneath the Earth’s surface, it rises to 30 miles underground, at which point it widens in to an area about 300 miles across.

At this point, blobs of magma which have been channeled up from the hotspot—a gigantic plume of hot and molten rock—break off from the top of the plume, and rise in to the magma chamber beneath the Yellowstone caldera.

It is this magma—that is believed to exist between 5 and 10 miles beneath the surface of Yellowstone—that heats the geysers and hot springs that have made Yellowstone National Park one of America’s foremost attractions.

The problem that the seismologists are facing is that they simply have not enough data to make an educated guess as to what will happen next. We know of three supervolcanic eruptions that happened before our time on Earth, but nothing more. Is Yellowstone nearing an explosion, or is this just part of the supervolcano’s normal processes?

Other famous remarks that are often used by scientists are “Time will tell” or “We can only wait and see.” Thankfully, our ability to use our planets past to predict its future continues to grow, to a point where, maybe someday, we will be able to predict what Yellowstone is up to.

Joshua Hill, a Geek’s-Geek from Melbourne, Australia, Josh is an aspiring author with dreams of publishing his epic fantasy, currently in the works, sometime in the next 5 years. A techie, nerd, sci-fi nut and bookworm.


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