Supervolcano Beneath Yellowstone Is Larger Than Previously Thought

Image: Supervolcano Beneath Yellowstone Is Larger Than Previously Thought Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone National Park.

Monday, 16 Dec 2013 11:25 AM

By Clyde Hughes

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Researchers said last week that a supervolcano beneath Yellowstone National Park is 2.5 times larger than previously thought and an eruption could threaten the globe.

A new study examining the supervolcano shows it has a magma chamber that stretches 55 miles and contains 200 to 600 cubic kilometers of molten rock. The supervolcano's cavern is 20 miles wide and 2 miles deep, BBC News reported.

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The research findings were presented last week at the American Geophysical Union's fall meeting in San Francisco.

"We record earthquakes in and around Yellowstone, and we measure the seismic waves as they travel through the ground," Jamie Farrell of the University of Utah told BBC News. "The waves travel slower through hot and partially molten material (and) with this; we can measure what’s beneath."

CNN reported last year that Yellowstone's first supervolcanic eruption 2.1 million years ago was at least 25,000 times larger than a Mount St. Helen's eruption. The Yellowstone supervolcano had two other eruptions — 1.3 million and 640,000 years ago — and while smaller, it was still much larger than other explosions.

Mount St. Helen, located in southwest Washington state, killed 57 people and expelled 1 cubic kilometer of ash when it erupted on May 18, 1980, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Nearly 150 square miles of forest was destroyed in the eruption.

University of Utah geophysicist Bob Smith, who heads the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory, said that Yellowstone is brimming with volcanic activity.

"I prefer to use the term hotspot (rather than supervolcano) because it reflects a zone of concentrated and active volcanism," Smith told CNN.

Smith said while Hawaii and Iceland represents other similar hot spots, Yellowstone is the only one that is located underneath land, making it easier to examine.

Farrell said that the size of Yellowstone's magma chamber is unprecedented and if an eruption happened there, "it would affect the world."

"All the material that is shot up into the atmosphere (during an eruption) would eventually circle the Earth and affect the climate throughout the world," Farrell said.

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