Magma pancakes beneath Lake Toba

The tremendous amounts of lava that are emitted during super-eruptions accumulate over millions of years prior to the event in the Earth’s crust. These reservoirs consist of magma that intrudes into the crust in the form of numerous horizontally oriented sheets resting on top of each other like a pile of pancakes.

A team of geoscientists from Novosibirsk, Paris and Potsdam presents these results in the current issue of Science (2014/10/31). The scientists investigate the question on where the tremendous amounts of material that are ejected to from huge calderas during super-eruptions actually originate. Here we are not dealing with large volcanic eruptions of the size of Pinatubo of Mount St. Helens, here we are talking about extreme events: The Toba-caldera in the Sumatra subduction zone in Indonesia originated from one of the largest volcanic eruption in recent Earth history, about 74,000 years ago. It emitted the enormous amount of 2,800 cubic kilometers of volcanic material with a dramatic global impact on climate and environment. Hereby, the 80 km long Lake Toba was formed.

Geoscientists were interested in finding out: How can the gigantic amounts of eruptible material required to form such a super volcano accumulate in the Earth’s crust. Was this a singular event thousands of years ago or can it happen again?

Researchers from the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences successfully installed a seismometer network in the Toba area to investigate these questions and provided the data to all participating scientists via the GEOFON data archive. GFZ scientist, Christoph Sens-Schönfelder, a co-author of the study explains: “With a new seismological method we were able to investigate the internal structure of the magma reservoir beneath the Toba-caldera. We found that the middle crust below the Toba supervolcano is horizontally layered.” The answer thus lies in the structure of the magma reservoir. Here, below 7 kilometers the crust consists of many, mostly horizontal, magmatic intrusions still containing molten material.

New seismological technique

It was already suspected that the large volume of magma ejected during the supervolcanic eruption had slowly accumulated over the last few millions of years in the form of consequently emplaced intrusions. This could now be confirmed with the results of field measurements. The GFZ scientists used a novel seismological method for this purpose. Over a six-month period they recorded the ambient seismic noise, the natural vibrations which usually are regarded as disturbing signals. With a statistical approach they analyzed the data and discovered that the velocity of seismic waves beneath Toba depends on the direction in which the waves shear the Earth’s crust. Above 7 kilometers depth the deposits of the last eruption formed a zone of low velocities. Below this depth the seismic anisotropy is caused by horizontally layered intrusions that structure the reservoir like a pile of pancakes. This is reflected in the seismic data.


Not only in Indonesia, but also in other parts of the world there are such supervoclcanoes, which erupt only every couple of hundred thousand years but then in gigantic eruptions. Because of their size those volcanoes do not build up mountains but manifest themselves with their huge carter formed during the eruption – the caldera. Other known supervolcanoes include the area of the Yellow-Stone-Park, volcanoes in the Andes, and the caldera of Lake-Taupo in New Zealand. The present study helps to better understand the processes that lead to such super-eruptions.

Supervolcanoes discovered in Utah

Brigham Young University geologists found evidence of some of the largest volcanic eruptions in earth’s history right in their own backyard.

These supervolcanoes aren’t active today, but 30 million years ago more than 5,500 cubic kilometers of magma erupted during a one-week period near a place called Wah Wah Springs. By comparison, this eruption was about 5,000 times larger than the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption.

“In southern Utah, deposits from this single eruption are 13,000 feet thick,” said Eric Christiansen, the lead author for the BYU study. “Imagine the devastation – it would have been catastrophic to anything living within hundreds of miles.”

Dinosaurs were already extinct during this time period, but what many people don’t know is that 25-30 million years ago, North America was home to rhinos, camels, tortoises and even palm trees. Evidence of the ancient flora and fauna was preserved by volcanic deposits.

The research group, headed by Christiansen and professor emeritus Myron Best, measured the thickness of the pyroclastic flow deposits. They used radiometric dating, X-ray fluorescence spectrometry, and chemical analysis of the minerals to verify that the volcanic ash was all from the same ancient super-eruption.

They found that the Wah Wah Springs eruption buried a vast region extending from central Utah to central Nevada and from Fillmore on the north to Cedar City on the south. They even found traces of ash as far away as Nebraska.

But this wasn’t an isolated event; the BYU geologists found evidence of fifteen super-eruptions and twenty large calderas. The scientific journal Geosphere recently published two of their papers detailing the discoveries.

Despite their enormous size, the supervolcanoes have been hidden in plain sight for millions of years.

“The ravages of erosion and later deformation have largely erased them from the landscape, but our careful work has revealed their details,” said Christiansen. “The sheer magnitude of this required years of work and involvement of dozens of students in putting this story together.”

Supervolcanoes are different from the more familiar “straddle” volcanoes – like Mount St. Helens – because they aren’t as obvious to the naked eye and they affect enormous areas.

“Supervolcanoes as we’ve seen are some of earth’s largest volcanic edifices, and yet they don’t stand as high cones,” said Christiansen. “At the heart of a supervolcano instead, is a large collapse.”

Those collapses in supervolcanoes occur with the eruption and form enormous holes in the ground in plateaus, known as calderas.

Not many people know that there are still active supervolcanoes today. Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming is home to one roughly the same size as the Wah Wah Springs caldera, which was about 25 miles across and 3 miles deep when it first formed.

Supervolcanic ash can turn to lava miles from eruption, scientists find

Evidence of flowing lava hardened into rock was found in Idaho several miles away from the site of an eight million year old supervolcano eruption at Yellowstone. -  Graham Andrews, assistant professor at California State University Bakersfield
Evidence of flowing lava hardened into rock was found in Idaho several miles away from the site of an eight million year old supervolcano eruption at Yellowstone. – Graham Andrews, assistant professor at California State University Bakersfield

Supervolcanoes, such as the one sitting dormant under Yellowstone National Park, are capable of producing eruptions thousands of times more powerful than normal volcanic eruptions. While they only happen every several thousand years, these eruptions have the potential to kill millions of people and animals due to the massive amount of heat and ash they release into the atmosphere. Now, researchers at the University of Missouri have shown that the ash produced by supervolcanoes can be so hot that it has the ability to turn back into lava once it hits the ground tens of miles away from the original eruption.

Following a volcanic eruption, lava typically flows directly from the site of the eruption until it cools enough that it hardens in place. However, researchers found evidence of an ancient lava flow tens of miles away from a supervolcano eruption near Yellowstone that occurred around 8 million years ago. Previously, Graham Andrews, an assistant professor at California State University Bakersfield, found that this lava flow was made of ash ejected during the eruption. Following Andrew’s discovery, Alan Whittington, an associate professor in the University of Missouri department of geological sciences in the College of Arts and Science, along with lead author Genevieve Robert and Jiyang Ye, both doctoral students in the geological sciences department, determined how this was possible.

“During a supervolcano eruption, pyroclastic flows, which are giant clouds of very hot ash and rock, travel away from the volcano at typically a hundred miles an hour,” Robert said. “We determined the ash must have been exceptionally hot so that it could actually turn into lava and flow before it eventually cooled.”

Because the ash should have cooled too much in the air to turn into lava right as it landed, the researchers believe the phenomenon was made possible by a process known as “viscous heating.” Viscosity is the degree to which a liquid resists flow. The higher the viscosity, the less the substance can flow. For example, water has a very low viscosity, so it flows very easily, while molasses has a higher viscosity and flows much slower. Whittington likens the process of viscous heating to stirring a pot of molasses.

“It is very hard to stir a pot of molasses and you have to use a lot of energy and strength to move your spoon around the pot,” Whittington said. “However, once you get the pot stirring, the energy you are using to move the spoon is transferred into the molasses, which actually heats up a little bit. This is viscous heating. So when you think about how fast the hot ash is traveling after a massive supervolcano eruption, once it hits the ground that energy is turned into heat, much like the energy from the spoon heating up the molasses. This extra heat created by viscous heating is enough to cause the ash to weld together and actually begin flowing as lava.”

The volcanic ash from this eruption has to be at least 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit to turn into lava; however, since the ash should have lost some of that heat in the air, the researchers believe viscous heating accounted for 200 to 400 degrees Fahrenheit of additional heating to turn the ash into lava.

Research aims to settle debate over origin of Yellowstone volcano

A debate among scientists about the geologic formation of the supervolcano encompassing the region around Yellowstone National Park has taken a major step forward, thanks to new evidence provided by a team of international researchers led by University of Rhode Island Professor Christopher Kincaid.

In a publication appearing in last week’s edition of Nature Geoscience, the URI team demonstrated that both sides of the debate may be right.

Using a state-of-the-art plate tectonic laboratory model, they showed that volcanism in the Yellowstone area was caused by severely deformed and defunct pieces of a former mantle plume. They further concluded that the plume was affected by circulation currents driven by the movement of tectonic plates at the Cascades subduction zone.

Mantle plumes are hot buoyant upwellings of magma inside the Earth. Subduction zones are regions where dense oceanic tectonic plates dive beneath buoyant continental plates. The origins of the Yellowstone supervolcano have been argued for years, with sides disagreeing about the role of mantle plumes.

According to Kincaid, the simple view of mantle plumes is that they have a head and a tail, where the head rises to the surface, producing immense magma structures and the trailing tail interacts with the drifting surface plates to create a chain of smaller volcanoes of progressively younger age. But Yellowstone doesn’t fit this typical mold.Among its oddities, its eastward trail of smaller volcanoes called the Snake River Plain has a mirror-image volcanic chain, the High Lava Plain, that extends to the west.As a result, detractors say the two opposite trails of volcanoes and the curious north-south offset prove the plume model simply cannot work for this area, and that a plates-only model must be at work.

To examine these competing hypotheses, Kincaid, former graduate student Kelsey Druken, and colleagues at the Australian National University built a laboratory model of the Earth’s interior using corn syrup to simulate fluid-like motion of Earth’s mantle. The corn syrup has properties that allow researchers to examine complex time changing, three-dimensional motions caused by the collisions of tectonic plates at subduction zones and their effect on unsuspecting buoyant plumes.

By using the model to simulate a mantle plume in the Yellowstone region, the researchers found that it reproduced the characteristically odd patterns in volcanism that are recorded in the rocks of the Pacific Northwest.

“Our model shows that a simple view of mantle plumes is not appropriate when they rise near subduction zones, and that these features get ripped apart in a way that seems to match the patterns in magma output in the northwestern U.S. over the past 20 million years,” said Kincaid, a professor of geological oceanography at the URI Graduate School of Oceanography. “The sinking plate produces a flow field that dominates the interaction with the plume, making the plume passive in many ways and trapping much of the magma producing energy well below the surface. What you see at the surface doesn’t look like what you’d expect from the simple models.”

The next step in Kincaid’s research is to conduct a similar analysis of the geologic formations in the region around the Tonga subduction zone and the Samoan Islands in the South Pacific, another area where some scientists dispute the role of mantle plumes.

According to Kincaid, “A goal of geological oceanography is to understand the relationship between Earth’s convecting interior and our oceans over the entire spectrum of geologic time. This feeds directly into the very pressing need for understanding where Earth’s ocean-climate system is headed, which clearly hinges on our understanding of how it has worked in past.”

EARTH: Setting off a supervolcano

Supervolcanoes are one of nature’s most destructive forces. In a matter of hours, an eruption from a supervolcano can force thousands of cubic meters of molten rock above ground, and scar landscapes with massive calderas and craters. These catastrophic eruptions have a global impact, and yet scientists still do not fully understand them. Today, a team of scientists studying Bolivia’s Uturuncu volcano is trying to shed some light on how supervolcanoes can become so powerful.

Uturuncu, nestled within one of the largest collections of supervolcano calderas on Earth, isn’t simply getting larger: it is the fastest growing volcano on the planet. Since monitoring began in the 1980s, the magma chamber has been steadily increasing at a rate of one centimeter per year. Could Uturuncu be the next supervolcano? And will any of us be alive to see this magnificent volcano come to a catastrophic end? Find out at </P

British scientific expedition discovers world’s deepest known undersea volcanic vents

First photograph of the world's deepest known 'black smoker' vent, erupting water hot enough to melt lead, 3.1 miles deep on the ocean floor -  NOC
First photograph of the world’s deepest known ‘black smoker’ vent, erupting water hot enough to melt lead, 3.1 miles deep on the ocean floor – NOC

A British scientific expedition has discovered the world’s deepest undersea volcanic vents, known as ‘black smokers’, 3.1 miles (5000 meters) deep in the Cayman Trough in the Caribbean. Using a deep-diving vehicle remotely controlled from the Royal Research Ship James Cook, the scientists found slender spires made of copper and iron ores on the seafloor, erupting water hot enough to melt lead, nearly half a mile deeper than anyone has seen before.

Deep-sea vents are undersea springs where superheated water erupts from the ocean floor. They were first seen in the Pacific three decades ago, but most are found between one and two miles deep. Scientists are fascinated by deep-sea vents because the scalding water that gushes from them nourishes lush colonies of deep-sea creatures, which has forced scientists to rewrite the rules of biology. Studying the life-forms that thrive in such unlikely havens is providing insights into patterns of marine life around the world, the possibility of life on other planets, and even how life on Earth began.

The expedition to the Cayman Trough is being run by Drs Doug Connelly, Jon Copley, Bramley Murton, Kate Stansfield and Professor Paul Tyler, all from Southampton, UK. They used a robot submarine called Autosub6000, developed by engineers at the National Oceanography Centre (NOC) in Southampton, to survey the seafloor of the Cayman Trough in unprecedented detail. The team then launched another deep-sea vehicle called HyBIS, developed by team member Murton and Berkshire-based engineering company Hydro-Lek Ltd, to film the world’s deepest vents for the first time.

“Seeing the world’s deepest black-smoker vents looming out of the darkness was awe-inspiring,” says Copley, a marine biologist at the University of Southampton’s School of Ocean and Earth Science (SOES) based at the NOC and leader of the overall research programme. “Superheated water was gushing out of their two-storey high mineral spires, more than three miles deep beneath the waves”. He added: “We are proud to show what British underwater technology can achieve in exploring this frontier – the UK subsea technology sector is worth £4 billion per year and employs 40 000 people, which puts it on a par with our space industry.”

The Cayman Trough is the world’s deepest undersea volcanic rift, running across the seafloor of the Caribbean. The pressure three miles deep at the bottom of the Trough – 500 times normal atmospheric pressure – is equivalent to the weight of a large family car pushing down on every square inch of the creatures that live there, and on the undersea vehicles that the scientists used to reveal this extreme environment. The researchers will now compare the marine life in the abyss of the Cayman Trough with that known from other deep-sea vents, to understand the web of life throughout the deep ocean. The team will also study the chemistry of the hot water gushing from the vents, and the geology of the undersea volcanoes where these vents are found, to understand the fundamental geological and geochemical processes that shape our world.

“We hope our discovery will yield new insights into biogeochemically important elements in one of the most extreme naturally occurring environments on our planet,” says geochemist Doug Connelly of the NOC, who is the Principal Scientist of the expedition.

“It was like wandering across the surface of another world,” says geologist Bramley Murton of the NOC, who piloted the HyBIS underwater vehicle around the world’s deepest volcanic vents for the first time. “The rainbow hues of the mineral spires and the fluorescent blues of the microbial mats covering them were like nothing I had ever seen before.”

“Our multidisciplinary approach – which brings together physics, chemistry, geology and biology with state-of-the-art underwater technology – has allowed us to find deep-sea vents more quickly than ever before,” adds oceanographer Kate Stansfield of the NOC.

The team aboard the ship includes students from the UK, Ireland, Germany and Trinidad. “This expedition has been a superb opportunity to train the next generation of marine scientists at the cutting edge of deep-sea research,” says marine biologist Paul Tyler of SOES, who heads the international Census of Marine Life Chemosynthetic Ecosystems (ChEss) programme.

The expedition will continue to explore the depths of the Cayman Trough until 20th April. The team are posting daily updates on their expedition website at, including photos and videos from their research ship. “We look forward to sharing the excitement of exploring the deep ocean with people around the world,” says Copley.

In addition to the scientists from Southampton, the team aboard the ship includes researchers from the University of Durham in the UK, the University of North Carolina Wilmington and the University of Texas in the US, and the University of Bergen in Norway. The expedition members are also working with colleagues ashore at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Duke University in the US to analyze the deep-sea vents.

The expedition is part of a research project funded by the UK Natural Environment Research Council to study the world’s deepest undersea volcanoes. The research team will return to the Cayman Trough for a second expedition using the UK’s deep-diving remotely-operated vehicle Isis, once a research ship is scheduled for the next phase of their project.

‘Rosetta Stone’ of supervolcanoes discovered in Italian Alps

Some lower peaks in the Alps. These are in the Chamonix Valley, near the Mer de Glace.
Some lower peaks in the Alps. These are in the Chamonix Valley, near the Mer de Glace.

Scientists have found the “Rosetta Stone” of supervolcanoes, those giant pockmarks in the Earth’s surface produced by rare and massive explosive eruptions that rank among nature’s most violent events. The eruptions produce devastation on a regional scale – and possibly trigger climatic and environmental effects at a global scale.

A fossil supervolcano has been discovered in the Italian Alps’ Sesia Valley by a team led by James E. Quick, a geology professor at Southern Methodist University. The discovery will advance scientific understanding of active supervolcanoes, like Yellowstone, which is the second-largest supervolcano in the world and which last erupted 630,000 years ago.

A rare uplift of the Earth’s crust in the Sesia Valley reveals for the first time the actual “plumbing” of a supervolcano from the surface to the source of the magma deep within the Earth, according to a new research article reporting the discovery. The uplift reveals to an unprecedented depth of 25 kilometers the tracks and trails of the magma as it moved through the Earth’s crust.

Supervolcanoes, historically called calderas, are enormous craters tens of kilometers in diameter. Their eruptions are sparked by the explosive release of gas from molten rock or “magma” as it pushes its way to the Earth’s surface.

Calderas erupt hundreds to thousands of cubic kilometers of volcanic ash. Explosive events occur every few hundred thousand years. Supervolcanoes have spread lava and ash vast distances and scientists believe they may have set off catastrophic global cooling events at different periods in the Earth’s past.

Sesia Valley’s caldera erupted during the “Permian” geologic time period, say the discovery scientists. It is more than 13 kilometers in diameter.

“What’s new is to see the magmatic plumbing system all the way through the Earth’s crust,” says Quick, who previously served as program coordinator for the Volcano Hazards Program of the U.S. Geological Survey. “Now we want to start to use this discovery. We want to understand the fundamental processes that influence eruptions: Where are magmas stored prior to these giant eruptions? From what depth do the eruptions emanate?”

Sesia Valley’s unprecedented exposure of magmatic plumbing provides a model for interpreting geophysical profiles and magmatic processes beneath active calderas. The exposure also serves as direct confirmation of the cause-and-effect link between molten rock moving through the Earth’s crust and explosive volcanism.

“It might lead to a better interpretation of monitoring data and improved prediction of eruptions,” says Quick, lead author of the research article reporting the discovery, “Magmatic plumbing of a large Permian caldera exposed to a depth of 25 km.,” in Geology.

Calderas, which typically exhibit high levels of seismic and hydrothermal activity, often swell, suggesting movement of fluids beneath the surface.

“We want to better understand the tell-tale signs that a caldera is advancing to eruption so that we can improve warnings and avoid false alerts,” Quick says.

To date, scientists have been able to study exposed caldera “plumbing” from the surface of the Earth to a depth of only 5 kilometers. Because of that, scientific understanding has been limited to geophysical data and analysis of erupted volcanic rocks. Quick likens the relevance of Sesia Valley to seeing bones and muscle inside the human body for the first time after previously envisioning human anatomy on the basis of a sonogram only.

“We think of the Sesia Valley find as the ‘Rosetta Stone’ for supervolcanoes because the depth to which rocks are exposed will help us to link the geologic and geophysical data,” Quick says. “This is a very rare spot. The base of the Earth’s crust is turned up on edge. It was created when Africa and Europe began colliding about 30 million years ago and the crust of Italy was turned on end.”

Bristish researchers introduced the term “supervolcano” in the last 10 years. Scientists have documented fewer than two dozen caldera eruptions in the last 1 million years.

Besides Yellowstone, other monumental explosions have included Lake Toba on Indonesia’s Sumatra island 74,000 years ago, which is believed to be the largest volcanic eruption on Earth in the past 25 million years.

Described as a massive climate-changing event, the Lake Toba eruption is thought to have killed an estimated 60% of humans alive at the time.

Another caldera, and one that remains active, Long Valley in California erupted about 760,000 years ago and spread volcanic ash for 600 cubic kilometers. The ash blanketed the southwestern United States, extending from California to as far west as Nebraska.

“There will be another supervolcano explosion,” Quick says. “We don’t know where. Sesia Valley could help us to predict the next event.”

Yellowstone’s Ancient Supervolcano: Only Lukewarm?

Yellowstone National Park and its famous geysers are the remnants of an ancient supervolcano. - Credit: U.S. Geological Survey
Yellowstone National Park and its famous geysers are the remnants of an ancient supervolcano. – Credit: U.S. Geological Survey

Molten plume of material beneath Yellowstone cooler than expected

The geysers of Yellowstone National Park owe their eistence to the “Yellowstone hotspot”–a region of molten rock buried deep beneath Yellowstone, geologists have found.

But how hot is this “hotspot,” and what’s causing it?

In an effort to find out, Derek Schutt of Colorado State University and Ken Dueker of the University of Wyoming took the hotspot’s temperature.

The scientists published results of their research, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF)’s division of earth sciences, in the August, 2008, issue of the journal Geology.

“Yellowstone is located atop of one of the few large volcanic hotspots on Earth,” said Schutt. “But though the hot material is a volcanic plume, it’s cooler than others of its kind, such as one in Hawaii.”

When a supervolcano last erupted at this spot more than 600,000 years ago, its plume covered half of today’s United States with volcanic ash. Details of the cause of the Yellowstone supervolcano’s periodic eruptions through history are still unknown.

Thanks to new seismometers in the Yellowstone area, however, scientists are obtaining new data on the hotspot.

Past research found that in rocks far beneath southern Idaho and northwestern Wyoming, seismic energy from distant earthquakes slows down considerably.

Using the recently deployed seismometers, Schutt and Dueker modeled the effects of temperature and other processes that affect the speed at which seismic energy travels. They then used these models to make an estimate of the Yellowstone hotspot’s temperature.

They found that the hotspot is “only” 50 to 200 degrees Celsius hotter than its surroundings.

“Although Yellowstone sits above a plume of hot material coming up from deep with the Earth, it’s a remarkably ‘lukewarm’ plume,” said Schutt, comparing Yellowstone to other plumes.

Although the Yellowstone volcano’s continued existence is likely due to the upwelling of this hot plume, the plume may have become disconnected from its heat source in Earth’s core.

“Disconnected, however, does not mean extinct,” said Schutt. “It would be a mistake to write off Yellowstone as a ‘dead’ volcano. A hot plume, even a slightly cooler one, is still hot.”

Researchers Uncover ‘Stirring’ Secrets of Deadly Supervolcanoes

Researchers from The University of British Columbia and McGill University have simulated in the lab the process that can turn ordinary volcanic eruptions into so-called “supervolcanoes.”

The study was conducted by Ben Kennedy and Mark Jellinek of UBC’s Dept. of Earth and Ocean Sciences, and John Stix of McGill’s Dept. of Earth and Planetary Sciences. Their results are published this week in the journal Nature Geoscience.

Supervolcanoes are orders of magnitude greater than any volcanic eruption in historic times. They are capable of causing long-lasting change to weather, threatening the extinction of species, and covering huge areas with lava and ash.

Using volcanic models made of Plexiglas filled with corn syrup, the researchers simulated how magma in a volcano’s magma chamber might behave if the roof of the chamber caved in during an eruption.

“The magma was being stirred by the roof falling into the magma chamber,” says Stix. “This causes lots of complicated flow effects that are unique to a supervolcano eruption.”

“There is currently no way to predict a supervolcano eruption,” says Kennedy, a post-doctoral fellow at UBC and lead author on the paper. “But this new information explains for the first time what happens inside a magma chamber as the roof caves in, and provides insights that could be useful when making hazard maps of such an eruption.”

The eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia in 1815 – the only known supervolcano eruption in modern history – was 10 times more powerful than Krakatoa and more than 100 times more powerful than Vesuvius or Mount St. Helens. It caused more than 100,000 deaths in Indonesia alone, and blew a column of ash about 70 kilometres into the atmosphere. The resulting disruptions of the planet’s climate led 1816 to be christened “the year without summer.”

“And this was a small supervolcano,” says Stix. “A really big one could create the equivalent of a global nuclear winter. There would be devastation for many hundreds of kilometres near the eruption and there would be would be global crop failures because of the ash falling from the sky, and even more important, because of the rapid cooling of the climate.”

There are potential supervolcano sites all over the world, most famously under Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, the setting of the 2005 BBC / Discovery Channel docudrama Supervolcano, which imagined an almost-total collapse of the world economy following an eruption.

Yellowstone Rising

The orange shapes in this image represent the magma chamber -- a chamber of molten and partly molten rock -- beneath the giant volcanic crater known as the Yellowstone caldera, which is represented by the rusty-colored outline at the top. The red rectangular slab-like feature is a computer-generated representation of molten rock injected into the magma chamber since mid-2004, causing the caldera to rise at an unprecedented rate of almost 3 inches a year, according to a new University of Utah study. In reality, the injected magma probably is shaped more like a pancake than a slab. The two rusty circles within the caldera outline represent the resurgent volcanic domes above the magma chamber. - Photo Credit: Wu-Lung Chang
The orange shapes in this image represent the magma chamber — a chamber of molten and partly molten rock — beneath the giant volcanic crater known as the Yellowstone caldera, which is represented by the rusty-colored outline at the top. The red rectangular slab-like feature is a computer-generated representation of molten rock injected into the magma chamber since mid-2004, causing the caldera to rise at an unprecedented rate of almost 3 inches a year, according to a new University of Utah study. In reality, the injected magma probably is shaped more like a pancake than a slab. The two rusty circles within the caldera outline represent the resurgent volcanic domes above the magma chamber. – Photo Credit: Wu-Lung Chang

The Yellowstone “supervolcano” rose at a record rate since mid-2004, likely because a Los Angeles-sized, pancake-shaped blob of molten rock was injected 6 miles beneath the slumbering giant, University of Utah scientists report in the journal Science.

“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.”

The upward movement of the Yellowstone caldera floor – almost 3 inches (7 centimeters) per year for the past three years – is more than three times greater than ever observed since such measurements began in 1923, says the study in the Nov. 9 issue of Science by Smith, geophysics postdoctoral associate Wu-Lung Chang and colleagues.

“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.

The magma chamber beneath Yellowstone National Park is a not a chamber of molten rock, but a sponge-like body with molten rock between areas of hot, solid rock.

Chang, the study’s first author, says: “To say if there will be a magma [molten rock] eruption or hydrothermal [hot water] eruption, we need more independent data.”

Calderas such as Yellowstone, California’s Long Valley (site of the Mammoth Lakes ski area) and Italy’s Campi Flegrei (near Naples) huff upward and puff downward repeatedly for decades to tens of thousands of years without catastrophic eruptions.

Smith and Chang conducted the study with University of Utah geophysics doctoral students Jamie M. Farrell and Christine Puskas, and with geophysicist Charles Wicks, of the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, Calif.

Yellowstone: A Gigantic Volcano Atop a Hotspot

Yellowstone is North America’s largest volcanic field, produced by a “hotspot” – a gigantic plume of hot and molten rock – that begins at least 400 miles beneath Earth’s surface and rises to 30 miles underground, where it widens to about 300 miles across. There, blobs of magma or molten rock occasionally break off from the top of the plume, and rise farther, resupplying the magma chamber beneath the Yellowstone caldera. Previous research indicates the magma chamber begins about 5 miles beneath Yellowstone and extends down to a depth of at least 10 miles. Its heat powers Yellowstone’s geysers and hot springs – the world’s largest hydrothermal field.

As Earth’s crust moved southwest over the Yellowstone hotspot during the past 16.5 million years, it produced more than 140 cataclysmic explosions known as caldera eruptions, the largest but rarest volcanic eruptions known. Remnants of ancient calderas reveal the eruptions began at the Oregon-Idaho-Nevada border some 16.5 million years ago, then moved progressively northeast across what is now the Snake River Plain.

The hotspot arrived under the Yellowstone area sometime after about 4 million years ago, producing gargantuan eruptions there 2 million, 1.3 million and 642,000 years ago. These eruptions were 2,500, 280 and 1,000 times bigger, respectively, than the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. The eruptions covered as much as half the continental United States with inches to feet of volcanic ash.

The most recent giant eruption created the 40-mile-by-25-mile oval-shaped Yellowstone caldera. The caldera walls have eroded away in many areas – although they remain visible in the northwest portion of the park. Yellowstone Lake sits roughly half inside and half outside the eroded caldera. Many smaller volcanic eruptions occurred at Yellowstone between and since the three big blasts, most recently 70,000 years ago. Smaller steam and hot water explosions have been more frequent and more recent.

Measuring a Volcano Getting Pumped Up

This digital elevation map of Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks was overlaid with elevation change data (colors) from Global Positioning System receivers and satellite measurements. A University of Utah study of the data indicates the giant Yellowstone “supervolcano” is rising upward faster than ever observed. The red arrows pointing up represent uplift of the Yellowstone caldera, or volcanic crater, while the downward red arrows show sinking of the land near Norris Geyser Basin. The black arrows indicate lateral or horizontal ground movement. – Photo Credit: Wu-Lung Chang, University of Utah

In the new study, the scientists measured uplift of the Yellowstone caldera from July 2004 through the end of 2006 with two techniques:

  • Twelve Global Positioning System (GPS) ground stations that receive timed signals from satellites, making it possible to measure ground uplift precisely.
  • The European Space Agency’s Envisat satellite, which bounces radar waves off the Yellowstone caldera’s floor.

The measurements showed that from mid-2004 through 2006, the Yellowstone caldera floor rose as fast as 2.8 inches (7 centimeters) per year – and by a total of 7 inches (18 centimeters) during the 30-month period, Chang says.

“The uplift is still going on today but at a little slower rate,” says Smith, adding there is no way to know when it will stop.

Smith says the fastest rate of uplift previously observed at Yellowstone was about 0.8 inch (2 centimeters) per year between 1976 and 1985.

He says that Yellowstone’s recent upward motion may seem small, but is twice as fast as the average rate of horizontal movement along California’s San Andreas fault.

The current uplift is faster than ever observed at Yellowstone, but may not be the fastest ever, since humans weren’t around for its three supervolcano eruptions.

Chang, Smith and colleagues conducted computer simulations to determine what changes in shape of the underground magma chamber best explained the recent uplift.

The simulations or “modeling” suggested the molten rock injected since mid-2004 is a nearly horizontal slab – known to geologists as a sill – that rests about 6 miles (10 kilometers) beneath Yellowstone National Park. The slab sits within and near the top of the pre-existing magma chamber, which resembles two anvil-shaped blobs expanding upward from a common base.

Smith describes the slab’s computer-simulated shape as “kind of like a mattress” about 38 miles long and 12 miles wide, but only tens or hundreds of yards thick.

In reality, he believes the slab resembles a large, spongy pancake formed as molten rock injected from below spread out near the top of the magma chamber.

The pancake of molten rock has an area of about 463 square miles, compared with 469 square miles of land for the City of Los Angeles.

Smith and colleagues believe steam and hot water contribute to uplift of the Yellowstone caldera, particularly during some previous episodes, but evidence indicates molten rock is responsible for most of the current uplift.

Chang says that when rising molten rock reaches the top of the magma chamber, it starts to crystallize and solidify, releasing hot water and gases, pressuring the magma chamber. But gases and steam compress more easily than molten rock, so much greater volumes would be required to explain the volcano’s inflation, the researchers say.

Also, large volumes of steam and hot water usually are no deeper than 2 miles, so they are unlikely to be inflating the magma chamber 6 miles underground, Smith adds.

Ups and Downs at Yellowstone

Conventional surveying of Yellowstone began in 1923. Measurements showed the caldera floor rose 40 inches during 1923-1984, and then fell 8 inches during 1985-1995.

GPS data showed the Yellowstone caldera floor sank 4.4 inches during 1987-1995. From 1995 to 2000, the caldera rose again, but the uplift was greatest – 3 inches – at Norris Geyser Basin, just outside the caldera’s northwest rim.

During 2000-2003, the northwest area rose another 1.4 inches, but the caldera floor itself sank about 1.1 inches. The trend continued during the first half of 2004. Then, in July 2004, the caldera floor began its rapid rate of uplift, followed three months later by sinking of the Norris area that continued until mid-2006.

Smith believes that uplift of the middle of the caldera decreased pressure within rocks along the edges of the giant crater, “so it allowed fluids to flow into the area of increased porosity.” That, in turn, triggered small earthquakes along the edge of the “pancake” of magma. The amount of hot water flowing out of the deflated Norris area is much smaller than the volume of magma injected beneath the caldera, Smith says.

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Brinson Foundation.