Wed. Dec 2nd, 2020

Yellowstone National Park's supervolcano is waning, experts say

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Yellowstone National Park’s supervolcano is waning, experts say after discovering two colossal eruptions that occurred nine million years ago

  • Scientists discovered two ancient super-eruptions in Yellowstone National Park
  • One happened 8.7 million years ago and the other nine million years ago 
  • This suggests the volcanic caldera should erupt every 500,000 years
  • However, the last time it did at this scale was three million years ago
  • Experts now suggest that the volcanic caldera’s power is ‘waning’

Yellowstone National Park’s supervolcano fuels famous geysers, mudspots and fumaroles, but new finds suggest the volcanic caldera’s power is waning.

Scientists discovered two colossal super-eruptions 8.7 and 9 million years ago, which reveals the massive volcano, on average, erupted once every 500,000 years.

Because the park has only experienced two similar events in over the past three million years, experts are concerned the hotpot is enduring ‘a very significant decline.’

Although reports have warned a super-eruption is due in the near future, the new findings suggest we may have up to 900,000 years before another eruption occurs on that scale.

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Scientists discovered two colossal super-eruptions 8.7 and 9 million years ago, which suggests the massive volcano, on average, erupted once every 500,000 years

Thomas Knott, a volcanologist at the University of Leicester in the UK and the paper’s lead author, said: ‘We discovered that deposits previously believed to belong to multiple, smaller eruptions were in fact colossal sheets of volcanic material from two previously unknown super-eruptions at about 9.0 and 8.7 million years ago.’

The younger of the two, known as Grey’s Landing super-eruption, spewed hot volcanic glass over 8,800 square miles, which is an area similar to the size of New Jersey.

‘The younger of the two, the Grey’s Landing super-eruption, is now the largest recorded event of the entire Snake-River-Yellowstone volcanic province,’ said Knott. 

Yellowstone National Park’s supervolcano fuels famous geysers, mudspots and fumaroles, but new finds suggest the volcanic caldera’s power is ‘waning.’ Because the park has only experienced two super-eruptions over the past three million years, experts are concerned the hotpot is enduring ‘a very significant decline’

Based on the most recent collations of super-eruption sizes, he added, ‘It is one of the top five eruptions of all time.’

The team notes that the younger eruption was 30 percent larger than the previous record holder, Huckleberry Ridge Tuff, and had devastating local and global effects.

The two eruptions led the team to investigate the supervolcano, which made them suggest may be waning.

During their analysis, the team used a combination of techniques, including bulk chemistry, magnetic data and radio-isotopic dates, to correlate volcanic deposits scattered across tens of thousands of square miles.

Both of the newly discovered super-eruptions occurred during the Miocene, the interval of geologic time spanning 23 to 5.3 million years ago.

The younger of the two, known as Grey’s Landing super-eruption (top right), spewed hot volcanic glass over 8,800 square miles, which is an area similar to the size of New Jersey

‘These two new eruptions bring the total number of recorded Miocene super-eruptions at the Yellowstone-Snake River volcanic province to six,’ says Knott.

Knott’s statement suggests that the super-eruptions during the  the Miocene was, on average, once every 500,000 years.

And the findings also provide ‘little bearing on assessing the risk of another super-eruption occurring today in Yellowstone,’ said Knott.

‘We have demonstrated that the recurrence rate of Yellowstone super-eruptions appears to be once every 1.5 million years,’ he said.

‘The last super-eruption there was 630,000 years ago, suggesting we may have up to 900,000 years before another eruption of this scale occurs.’

However, Knott also added that the estimate is simply just that and he emphasizes scientists and officials to monitor the area and to issue warnings of any uptickwell in advance.

COULD AN ERUPTION AT THE YELLOWSTONE SUPERVOLCANO BE PREVENTED?

Recent research found a small magma chamber, known as the upper-crustal magma reservoir, beneath the surface

Nasa believes drilling up to six miles (10km) down into the supervolcano beneath Yellowstone National Park to pump in water at high pressure could cool it.

Despite the fact that the mission would cost $3.46 billion (£2.63 billion), Nasa considers it ‘the most viable solution.’ 

Using the heat as a resource also poses an opportunity to pay for plan – it could be used to create a geothermal plant, which generates electric power at extremely competitive prices of around $0.10 (£0.08) per kWh.

But this method of subduing a supervolcano has the potential to backfire and trigger the supervolcanic eruption Nasa is trying to prevent.

‘Drilling into the top of the magma chamber ‘would be very risky;’ however, carefully drilling from the lower sides could work. 

This USGS graphic shows how a ‘super eruption’ of the molten lava under Yellowstone National Park would spread ash across the United States

Even besides the potential devastating risks, the plan to cool Yellowstone with drilling is not simple.

Doing so would be an excruciatingly slow process that one happen at the rate of one metre a year, meaning it would take tens of thousands of years to cool it completely. 

And still, there wouldn’t be a guarantee it would be successful for at least hundreds or possibly thousands of years. 

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