..Supervolcano

THE PAST IS KEY TO THE PRESENT

The Yellowstone Caldera, sometimes known as the Yellowstone supervolcano, is a volcanically active region in Yellowstone National Park. It measures 55 kilometers (34 mi) by 72 kilometers (44 mi). The caldera was discovered based on geological field work conducted by Bob Christiansen of the United States Geological Survey in the 1960s and 1970s.

hot-spot-track-541-x-360.jpg(<<- click to enlarge) -Yellowstone, like the Hawaiian Islands and east-central California, is believed to lie on top of one of the planet’s few dozen hotspots where light hot molten mantle rock rises towards the surface. The Yellowstone hotspot has a long history. Over the past 17 million years or so, successive eruptions have flooded lava over wide stretches of Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, and Idaho, forming a string of comparatively flat calderas linked like beads, as the North American plate moves across the stationary hotspot. The oldest identified caldera remnant is straddling the border near McDermitt, Nevada-Oregon. The calderas’ apparent motion to the east-northeast forms the Snake River Plain. However, what is actually happening is the result of the North American plate moving west-southwest over the stationary hotspot deep underneath.

743px-yellowstone_caldera_map2.jpg(<<- click to enlarge) – Currently, volcanic activity is exhibited only via numerous geothermal vents scattered throughout the region, including the famous Old Faithful Geyser, but within the past two million years, it has undergone three extremely large explosive eruptions, up to 2,500 times the size of the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption. The three eruptions happened 2.1 million years ago, 1.3 millon years ago, and the most recent such eruption produced the Lava Creek Tuff 640,000 years ago and spread a layer of volcanic ash over most of the North American continent. Smaller steam explosions occur every 20,000 years or so; an explosion 13,000 years ago left a 5 kilometer diameter crater at Mary Bay on the edge of Yellowstone Lake (located in the center of the caldera). Additionally, non-explosive eruptions of lava flows have occurred in and near the caldera since the last major eruption; the most recent of these was about 70,000 years ago. Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho is the result of volcanic activity between 11,000 and 2,000 years ago.

The volcanic eruptions, as well as the continuing geothermal activity, are a result of a large chamber of magma located below the caldera’s surface. The magma in this chamber contains gases that are kept dissolved only by the immense pressure that the magma is under. If the pressure is released to a sufficient degree by some geological shift, then some of the gases bubble out and cause the magma to expand. This can cause a runaway reaction. If the expansion results in further relief of pressure, for example, by blowing crust material off of the top of the chamber, the result is a very large gas explosion.

Volcanic hazard

a-bit-of-fall_out-yel.jpg(<<- click to enlarge) – A full-scale eruption of the Yellowstone caldera could result in millions of deaths locally and catastrophic climatic effects globally, but there is little indication that such an eruption is imminent. However, the system is not yet completely understood, and the study of Yellowstone is ongoing. Geologists are closely monitoring the rise and fall of the Yellowstone Plateau, which averages +/- 1.5 cm yearly, as an indication of changes in magma chamber pressure.

Occasionally proposals are suggested for ways to safely relieve the buildup of dissolved gas in the Yellowstone magma chamber, usually involving drilling holes or using explosives to release small amounts of pressure in a controlled manner. However, none of these ideas is likely to have a noticeable impact and would likely cause an eruption. The magma beneath Yellowstone is not very mobile, so release of dissolved gases from any given point will not do much to the chamber as a whole, and in any event, the scale of the problem is far too large for current engineering capabilities to handle.

Origin

The source of the Yellowstone Hot Spot is not without controversy. Many geologists believe that the Yellowstone Hot Spot source is an upper mantle convection current. Others prefer a deep mantle origin and still others prefer a meteor impact. Part of the controversy is due to the rather sudden appearance of the hot spot in the geologic record. Additionally, the Columbia Basalt flows appear at the same approximate point in time, causing speculation about their origin.

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The Long Valley Caldera

Analogous to the Yellowstone super volcano is the Long Valley Caldera, located along highway 395, just north of Tom’s Place, California.

a-bit-of-calderarelief-hot-creek.gif(<<- click to enlarge) The caldera is a 15- by 30-km oval-shaped depression located 20 km south of Mono Lake along the east side of the Sierra Nevada in east-central California. This area of eastern California has produced numerous volcanic eruptions over the past 3 million years, including the massive caldera-forming eruption 760,000 years ago. The most recent eruption occurred just 250 years ago in Mono Lake at the north end of Mono-Inyo Craters volcanic chain.

In May of 1980, a strong earthquake swarm that included four magnitude 6 earthquakes struck the southern margin of Long Valley Caldera associated with a 25-cm, dome-shaped uplift of the caldera floor. These events marked the onset of the latest period of caldera unrest that continues to this day. This ongoing unrest includes recurring earthquake swarms and continued dome-shaped uplift of the central section of the caldera (the resurgent dome) accompanied by changes in thermal springs and gas emissions.

In 1982, the U.S. Geological Survey under the Volcano Hazards Program began an intensive effort to monitor and study geologic unrest in Long Valley caldera. The goal of this effort is to provide residents and civil authorities in the area reliable information on the nature of the potential hazards posed by this unrest and timely warning of an impending volcanic eruption, should it develop. Most, perhaps all, volcanic eruptions are preceded and accompanied by geophysical and geochemical changes in the volcanic system. Common precursory indicators of volcanic activity include increased seismicity, ground deformation, and variations in the nature and rate of gas emissions.

The Effects of Western Supervolcanoes

Locally the eruptions create massive disturbances in the topography of the area. The effects, on an areal and regional scale, are different but no less dramatic. Ash fall, and pyroclastic flows affect vegitation and animal life for hundreds and thousands of miles. Speculation is partially buttressed by recent smaller events, and the geologic record.

{{more to come on effects and results}}

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Related Links:

Yellowstone: Monitoring The Fire Down Below: American Museum Of Natural History.
Hot Spot Volcanism
: Mantle Plumes.
Westward Drift Of The Lithosphere: Mantle Plumes.
Yellowstone Caldera: Wikipedia.
Yellowstone Volcano Observatory: USGS / NPS / University of Utah.
What’s In Yellowstone’s Future?: USGS Fact Sheet.
Supervolcano Questions: USGS Information Page.
Docudrama & Facts: Volcano Observatory FAQ Page.

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Excerpts From Solcomhouse

..It is little known that lying underneath one of The United States largest and most picturesque National Parks – Yellowstone Park – is one of the largest “super volcanoes” in the world.

..Eruptions of the Yellowstone volcanic system have included the two largest volcanic eruptions in North America in the past few million years; the third largest was at Long Valley in California and produced the Bishop ash bed. The biggest of the Yellowstone eruptions occurred 2.1 million years ago, depositing the Huckleberry Ridge ash bed. These eruptions left behind huge volcanic depressions called “calderas” and spread volcanic ash over large parts of North America (see map). If another large caldera-forming eruption were to occur at Yellowstone, its effects would be worldwide. Thick ash deposits would bury vast areas of the United States, and injection of huge volumes of volcanic gases into the atmosphere could drastically affect global climate. Fortunately, the Yellowstone volcanic system shows no signs that it is headed toward such an eruption in the near future. In fact, the probability of any such event occurring at Yellowstone within the next few thousand years is exceedingly low.

..Scientists evaluate natural-hazard levels by combining their knowledge of the frequency and the severity of hazardous events. In the Yellowstone region, damaging hydrothermal explosions and earthquakes can occur several times a century. Lava flows and small volcanic eruptions occur only rarely—none in the past 70,000 years. Massive caldera-forming eruptions, though the most potentially devastating of Yellowstone’s hazards, are extremely rare—only three have occurred in the past several million years. U.S. Geological Survey, University of Utah, and National Park Service scientists with the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory (YVO) see no evidence that another such cataclysmic eruption will occur at Yellowstone in the foreseeable future. Recurrence intervals of these events are neither regular nor predictable.

..Scientists have revealed that Yellowstone Park has been on a regular eruption cycle of 600,000 years. The last eruption was 640,000 years ago…so the next is overdue. The next eruption could be 2,500 times the size of the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption. Volcanologists have been tracking the movement of magma under the park and have calculated that in parts of Yellowstone the ground has risen over seventy centimeters this century.

..Volcanic activity began in the Yellowstone National Park region a little before about 2 million years ago. Molten rock (magma) rising from deep within the Earth produced three cataclysmic eruptions more powerful than any in the world’s recorded history. The first caldera-forming eruption occurred about 2.1 million years ago. The eruptive blast removed so much magma from its subsurface storage reservoir that the ground above it collapsed into the magma chamber and left a gigantic depression in the ground- a hole larger than the state of Rhode Island. The huge crater, known as a caldera, measured as much as 80 kilometers long, 65 kilometers wide, and hundreds of meters deep, extending from outside of Yellowstone National Park into the central area of the Park.

..The most recent caldera-forming eruption about 650,000 years ago produced a caldera 53 x 28 miles (85 x 45 kilometers) across in what is now Yellowstone National Park (Figure 2). During that eruption, ground-hugging flows of hot volcanic ash, pumice, and gases swept across an area of more than 3,000 square miles. When these enormous pyroclastic flows finally stopped, they solidified to form a layer of rock called the Lava Creek Tuff. Its volume was about 240 cubic miles (1,000 cubic kilometers), enough material to cover Wyoming with a layer 13 feet thick or the entire conterminous United States with a layer 5 inches thick. The Lava Creek Tuff has been exposed by erosion at Tuff Cliff, a popular Yellowstone attraction along the lower Gibbon River. The eruption also shot a column of volcanic ash and gases high into Earth’s stratosphere. This volcanic cloud circled the globe many times and affected Earth’s climate by reducing the intensity of solar radiation reaching the lower atmosphere and surface. Fine volcanic ash that fell downwind from the eruption site blanketed much of North America. This ash layer is still preserved in deposits as far away as Iowa, where it is a few inches thick, and the Gulf of Mexico, where it is recognizable in drill cores from the sea floor. Lava flows have since buried and obscured most of the caldera, but the underlying processes responsible for Yellowstone’s tremendous volcanic eruptions are still at work.

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Excerpts From University of Wisconsin Press Release

..MADISON – Reading the geochemical fine print found in tiny crystals of the minerals zircon and quartz, scientists are forming a new picture of the life history – and a geologic timetable – of a type of volcano in the western United States capable of dramatically altering climate sometime within the next 100,000 years.

With insight gained from new analytical techniques to study crystals of zircon and quartz, minerals that serve as veritable time capsules of geologic events, a group of scientists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison has proposed a new model for the origin of volcanism in young calderas.

These are volcanoes that occur over “hot spots” in the Earth and they erupt every few hundred thousand years in catastrophic explosions, sending hundreds to thousands of cubic kilometers of ash into the atmosphere and wreaking climatic havoc on a global scale.

In a series of papers, UW-Madison geologists Ilya N. Bindeman and John W. Valley present a life history of the hot spot volcanism that has occurred in the Yellowstone basin of the western United States over the past 2 million years. Their findings suggest a dying, but still potent cycle of volcanism, and a high probability of a future catastrophic eruption sometime within the next million years, and possibly within the next hundred thousand years.

Today’s Yellowstone landscape represents the last in a sequence of calderas – the broad crater-like basins created when volcanoes explode and their characteristic cones collapse – that formed in regular progression over the past 2 million years. The near-clockwork timing of eruptions there – 2 million years ago, 1.3 million years ago and 600,000 years ago – suggests a pattern that may foreshadow an eruption of catastrophic proportions, said Bindeman and Valley.

Beneath Yellowstone and its spectacular landscape of hot springs and geysers is a hot spot, an upwelling plume of melted rock from the Earth’s mantle. As the plume of hot, liquid rock rises in the Earth, it melts the Earth’s crust and creates large magma chambers.

“These magmas usually erupt in a very catastrophic way,” said Bindeman. “By comparison, the eruption of Mount St. Helens sent about two cubic kilometers of ash into the atmosphere. These catastrophic types of eruptions send thousands of cubic kilometers of ash skyward.”

The hot spot deep beneath Yellowstone acts like a burner, said Bindeman. “It’s a constant source of heat that acts on the upper crust and forms magma chambers that contain tens of thousands of cubic kilometers” of molten rock.

One of the massive plates that helps make up the crust of the Earth, the North American plate, is slowly moving over the hot spot, said Bindeman. “The plate has been moving across the heat source which makes it seem like the volcanoes are moving across the continent. Moreover, we have a progression of explosive eruptions which seem to have some periodicity.”

Bindeman and Valley studied rocks that span the entire 2-million-year long eruptive sequence at Yellowstone with a special emphasis on lavas that erupted the last time one of the massive volcanoes popped off creating what geologists call the Yellowstone Caldera. Their conclusion is that the volcanic cycle is waning, but that there is still a very real potential of an eruption of massive proportions sometime in the near geologic future.

Such an eruption would disrupt global climate by injecting millions of tons of ash into the atmosphere. Some of the ash would remain in the atmosphere for years, reflect sunlight back into space and cool the planet, significantly affecting life. In addition, a blanket of ash over a meter thick would be deposited in nearby regions and effectively smother life there.

The most recent caldera is 600,000 years old and encompasses an area of more than 2,000 square kilometers. When it erupted, it blasted 1,000 cubic kilometers of volcanic rock into the atmosphere and it settled as ash over more than half of the United States.

After that last major eruption, volcanism in Yellowstone continued in a quieter fashion with another, much smaller eruption occurring 70,000 years ago.

Today’s spectacular geysers and hot springs at Yellowstone are the most visible part of the volcanic system there. They contain heated snow and rainwater which leave a geochemical record that provides insight into the region’s geologic activity. Prior to the last catastrophic eruption at Yellowstone 600,000 years ago, an even more spectacular geothermal landscape existed there, said Bindeman.

“The unique thing about Yellowstone is that the volcanic rocks that erupted following the collapse of the big calderas contain up to 50 percent oxygen which was ultimately derived from rain waters,” Bindeman said. “The zircon and quartz tell us that rocks near the surface were altered by heated snow and rainwater. These rocks were then remelted to become magmas.”

This scenario changes the view of magmatism at Yellowstone and other calderas as representing new magma coming from deep in the Earth. On the contrary, Bindeman and Valley make a case for the total remelting and recycling of previously erupted surface rocks.

Their findings have been published in a series of papers, the first in the August 2000 edition of the journal Geology. Another paper is to appear this month (July) in Earth and Planetary Science Letters, and another is scheduled for publication next month (August) in the Journal of Petrology.

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