Beneath Yellowstone National Park sits a massive supervolcano. Every 650,000 years or so, it detonates, spewing billions of tons of ash and soot all over the earth. When it explodes, it plunges the entire planet into a volcanic winter. Its debris cloud is thought to be 2,500 times larger than Mt. St. Helens. And, according to new research, that bomb may be on a much shorter fuse than we thought.
First, before you read any further: don’t worry. Yellowstone still isn’t showing any signs that it may be a threat soon. Other outlets will tell you that, and they’re lying. They’re also lying about just how devastating it could be. I mean… yeah, it’s bad, but not apocalypse bad. Just most-humans-will-probably-die bad. Anyway.
A team of researchers from Arizona State University believes that the monster last blew after two large dumps of magma into its subterranean reservoir. The issue is that this process was thought to take centuries. Presenting their work at a volcanology conference, the team found that the reservoir could fill in mere decades.
Hannah Shamloo, a graduate student at ASU spent weeks studying fossilized ash from the last eruption. They gathered samples and analyzed the rocks to learn about how the minerals inside were formed.
Volcanologists can study a lot from the mere shape of some crystals, as it can tell how fast the rocks cooled, or were built up. That can be used to figure out what else was going on at the time, giving us critical information about how these processes work.
“We expected that there might be processes happening over thousands of years preceding the eruption,” Christy Till told the New York Times. Till is a geologist at ASU and Shamloo’s adviser. Instead, the news could be grim for those looking to get as much warning as possible for the potentially impending eruption.
“It’s shocking how little time is required to take a volcanic system from being quiet and sitting there to the edge of an eruption,” Shamloo said.
More research will be needed to confirm these results, of course, but it gives geologists a valuable direction to look. There aren’t many geological forces than cause such a massive buildup of magma. More than 1,000 cubic kilometers of magma can sit in the reservoir. For that quantity of mass to move on the scale of centuries or millennia is well within what we could “normal” for the Earth. But decades? That’s something else entirely.
Now the work will begin to sort out what could drive that and what that might look like above — and below — ground.
Yellowstone, because of its high threat potential, is perhaps the best-studied supervolcano in the world. There are countless sensors that can tell us about small elevation changes, which could signal a buildup of magma in the chamber below. Right now the chamber appears to be about 6-8% full, far too low to cause a super-eruption. If it began to fill up tomorrow, even at this rapid pace, we’d have a couple of decades to address it and prepare. So… that’s something at least.
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