The Yellowstone supervolcano in the western United States contains substantially more magma than scientists previously thought, according to a new study that could lead to a better assessment of the volcano’s dangers.
The researchers, including those at the University of Illinois in the United States, however, caution that the findings do not imply an eruption is imminent or that it necessarily means the volcano is more dangerous than before.
The study, published last week in the journal Scienceit may help improve how scientists model this supervolcano to better predict associated risks.
“It’s about getting a clearer picture of what’s down there and what’s been down there for a while,” said University of New Mexico study author Brandon Schmandt. The New York Times.
The supervolcano, also called the Yellowstone Caldera, is located in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming and was created following a powerful eruption in the region about 630,000 years ago.
It is a huge bowl about 50-70 km wide, the eruption of which could choke the planet’s atmosphere with ash and block out the Sun for months.
A key criterion in assessing the danger of volcanic eruptions is determining how much magma lies beneath its surface and how it is distributed.
While the modern Yellowstone supervolcano remains active, scientists said questions remain about the volume and distribution of its magma and how these compare to conditions that preceded the volcano’s previous eruptions in history.
Some previous studies have produced images of the subsurface under Yellowstone, helping to make this estimate.
However, these reveal a reservoir in the upper middle crust characterized by a relatively poor magma system.
Based on recent observations from spatially isolated seismometers in the region, the new study suggests the supervolcano may contain more substantial melt than scientists previously thought.
While previous studies suggested that the Yellowstone caldera has a low concentration of magma, of about only 10%, the latest research indicates that there may be up to double that amount within the supervolcano’s magma system.
The new study presented new images of the liquid part of the magma beneath Yellowstone volcano, revealing more melting than previously recognized in its shallow depths.
“Although our results indicate that the Yellowstone magma reservoir contains substantial melting at depth that fueled previous eruptions, our study does not confirm the presence of an eruptive body or imply a future eruption,” the scientists wrote in the study.
“The uncertainty about how melt is distributed means that more melt isn’t necessarily more dangerous,” noted Kari M Cooper, a geologist at the University of California Davis in the United States, in the same journal in a related article.
While the findings also don’t suggest an eruption is more likely than previously thought, the scientists are calling for continued monitoring of the supervolcano’s subsurface as it is likely to provide a clear picture if the situation changes dramatically.