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Yellowstone's Volcano and Earthquake a Cataclysmic Mixture?

By Nick Sanchez   |   Tuesday, 01 Apr 2014 08:28 AM

The magnitude 4.8 earthquake that struck Yellowstone National Park on Sunday was the park's biggest since 1980, and prompted many to speculate whether such a quake could trigger the ancient super-volcano living just underneath.

In December, BBC News reported that scientists found that the super-volcano – also known as a "caldera" – was 2.5 times larger than previously thought, and could therefore threaten the entire globe were it to erupt. In total, its magma chamber is now thought to stretch 55 miles and contain 120-370 cubic miles of molten lava.

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The caldera's last cataclysmic eruption occurred 2.1 million years ago, and was at least 25,000 times larger than the 1980 Mount St. Helen's eruption in Washington state that killed 57 and destroyed 150 square miles of forest. According to Reuters, geological evidence shows that the super-eruption covered half of North America in ash, and killed animals as far away as Nebraska.

Scientists have said that a big eruption of the caldera isn't expected for tens of thousands of years, but also noted that smaller lava releases could come in just thousands.

Those releases came to many people's minds after Sunday's earthquake, however scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey said there was no indication such an earthquake could trigger an eruption. Even larger earthquakes like the magnitude 7.3 quake that struck in 1959 wouldn't pose a threat.

Why is that? In a detailed breakdown, Wired magazine explains that "the caldera doesn’t have a huge volume of magma that is in a state that can easily erupt. In fact, some research suggests that Yellowstone is bordering on moribund – that is, it might be a 'dying' caldera." In other words, the magma isn't close enough to the surface, and it's also not charged with enough eruptible gas.

Moreover, Wired points out, the earthquake was primarily a compressional one – not one that would likely crack open the earth's surface.

Reassuring the citizenry further, the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory also released a statement that read in part, "Based on the style and location of today's earthquake, at this time YVO sees no indication of additional geologic activity other than continuing seismicity."

No damage or injuries have been reported after Sunday's earthquake.

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