Yellowstone magma plume bigger than thought – a lot bigger!

The upper contours of a hot blob of molten rock plunging at least 400 miles below Yellowstone National Park are coming into sharper relief, thanks to new data generated by measurements of electrical conductivity.

The funnel-shaped chamber could be larger than previously pictured, according to University of Utah geophysicists poised to publish a large-scale image of the magma plume believed to be responsible for Yellowstone’s famous thermal features and a series of cataclysmic eruptions.

Robert Smith, an emeritus professor of geophysics, used seismic waves to paint a detailed picture of the plume in 2009, indicating it rises at an angle of 60 degrees from the northwest, covering about 150 miles of horizontal distance.

The latest study exploits the plume’s electrical conductivity to chart a picture in which the plume rises at a shallower angle, about 40 degrees, and is larger, extending as far as 400 miles east to west, versus the 150 miles pictured by the seismic data…

“It’s like comparing ultrasound and MRI in the human body,” said geophysics professor Michael Zhdanov, Smith’s co-author on the latest study. “They are completely different methods. They provide complementary data about the same object…”

The new geoelectrical data, which can “see” 200 miles below the Earth’s surface, was generated by EarthScope, a massive National Science Foundation-funded project to characterize the structure of the geology under North America. Smith’s seismic image exceeds 400 miles in depth.

Folks in the Rockies can now be much more nervous about the supervolcano exploding someday.

14 thoughts on “Yellowstone magma plume bigger than thought – a lot bigger!

  1. Ragnarök says:

    “This month, the US Geological Survey (USGS) plans to fly a large, electromagnetic ring over Yellowstone National Park.
    It’s all part of a new initiative to map the park’s underground plumbing. Scientists from the USGS, the University of Wyoming, and Denmark’s Aarhus University will study the flow of hot water through Old Faithful and Yellowstone’s many other geysers. The research could offer new insight into Yellowstone’s hydrothermal explosions, which have occurred irregularly throughout the park’s history.
    Hydrothermal explosions, though rare in Yellowstone, can be powerful. About 13,800 years ago, one such eruption produced a mile-wide crater at the bottom of Yellowstone Lake. By understanding the park’s hydrothermal blueprint, administrators could better plan for tourist safety and future development.
    Yellowstone’s volcanic mechanisms are somewhat better known. In March, geologists used paleomagnetic data to identify the size and location of previous eruptions along the park’s most thermally-active regions. They found that a few very large blasts, rather than many smaller ones, rocked the Snake River Plain between 8 and 12 million years ago.
    Last year, seismologists from the University of Utah discovered a new magma chamber, some 30 miles wide, beneath the park’s surface. The discovery seemed to support what many have theorized – that Yellowstone is actually a massive “supervolcano.”
    http://www.csmonitor.com/Science/2016/1107/Yellowstone-s-Old-Faithful-Scientists-explore-its-plumbing

  2. Update says:

    A Surprise From the Supervolcano Under Yellowstone (NYT Oct 10) https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/10/science/yellowstone-volcano-eruption.html “The early evidence, presented at a recent volcanology conference, shows that Yellowstone’s most recent supereruption was sparked when new magma moved into the system only decades before the eruption. Previous estimates assumed that the geological process that led to the event took millenniums to occur.
    Meanwhile: “Washington State University researchers have determined that the Pacific Northwest was home to one of the Earth’s largest known volcanic eruptions, a millennia-long spewing of sulfuric gas that blocked out the sun and cooled the planet.
    Only two other eruptions — the basalt floods of the Siberian Traps and the Deccan Traps — were larger, and they led to two of the Earth’s great extinctions. The research, which was funded by the National Science Foundation, appears in Geology, the top journal in the field. https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-10/wsu-wrd101017.php

  3. Xiuhtecuhtli says:

    Researchers at Washington State University and the University of Idaho have found a new way to estimate how fast magma is recharging beneath the Yellowstone supervolcano. While their findings offer no help in predicting if the volcano will erupt, they can now get a better understanding of a key factor–a pool of basalt magma recharging the system–in how it works (Washington State University 6/4/18) https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2018-06/wsu-rfn060418.php

  4. Charles Hapgood says:

    “What happens under the Yellowstone Volcano : Study provides information about the processes deep inside the Earth (GFZ GeoForschungsZentrum Potsdam, Helmholtz Centre) https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2019-10/ggph-whu101719.php
    “The paper will soon appear in the journal “Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems” published by the American Geophysical Union. It is based on modelling the Earth’s mantle.
    According to the model, beneath the Yellowstone volcano lies a so-called mantle plume: a chimney-like structure that reaches thousands of kilometres deep to the border of the Earth’s core and mantle. The origin of the plume lies under the “Baja California”, more than a thousand kilometers southwest of the national park. Evaluations of earthquake waves had already suggested something like this, but the idea of such a “mantle plume” did not fit in with the movement of the Earth’s lithospheric plates.”

  5. Erebus says:

    A small group of volcanic islands in Alaska’s Aleutian chain might be part of a single, undiscovered giant volcano, say scientists presenting the findings Monday, 7 December at American Geophysical Union’s Fall Meeting 2020. If the researchers’ suspicions are correct, the newfound volcanic caldera would belong to the same category of volcanoes as the Yellowstone Caldera and other volcanoes that have had super-eruptions with severe global consequences. https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2020-12/agu-coa120220.php
    Caldera-forming eruptions are the most explosive volcanic eruptions on Earth and they often have had global effects. The ash and gas they put into the atmosphere can affect Earth’s climate and trigger social upheaval. For example, the eruption of nearby Okmok volcano in the year BCE 43 has been recently implicated in the disruption of the Roman Republic. The proposed caldera underlying the Islands of the Four Mountains would be even larger than Okmok. If confirmed, it would become the first in the Aleutians that is hidden underwater, said Diana Roman of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C., co-author of the study. https://agu.confex.com/agu/fm20/webprogram/Paper746451.html
    Location map of the Islands of Four Mountains in the Aleutian arc. This also shows the position and approximate areas of known calderas along the arc. https://news.agu.org/files/2020/11/IFMAleutian_Calderas-1024×502.jpg
    Werner Herzog documentary, “Into the Inferno” (trailer)

  6. Meanwhile says:
  7. Update says:

    “The vast volcanic caldera at Yellowstone National Park is just the latest in a long string of volcanic sites, all of which seem to be linked to a hot blob of material* that may go all the way down to the Earth’s mantle. There’s been a lot of effort put into tracing that hot material, given that some of the earlier eruptions from it have been utterly enormous.
    But there’s also a connection between that hot material and the features, like geysers and hot springs, that make Yellowstone a major tourist destination. And those connections are very difficult to trace. But a new study has proposed a map that shows how the hot water of Yellowstone flows beneath the feet of visitors and why it reaches the surface at specific sites.” https://arstechnica.com/science/2022/03/imaging-the-plumbing-that-powers-yellowstones-geysers/
    * See also “Missing hot mantle plume detected beneath Yellowstone : Twist on planetary CT scan picks up something new.” (3/21/18) https://arstechnica.com/science/2018/03/missing-hot-mantle-plume-detected-beneath-yellowstone/

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