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Yellowstone Supervolcano Keeps Getting Bigger

Apr 24, 2015 03:07 PM EDT

Yellowstone may be one of the most pristine places you can visit filled with streams, grasslands, wildlife and more, but underneath the surface you will find one of the largest volcanoes on the planet.  According to a team of researchers from the University of Utah, the supervolcano is larger than originally believed and it is growing.

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A team of seismologists from the university mapped in greater detail the hot molten rock deep beneath the surface of Yellowstone more extensively than ever before, revealing that the amount of molten rock could fill the Grand Canyon more than 11 times over.

A newly discovered reservoir for magma was discovered that reaches down as far as 28 miles beneath the surface and significantly eclipses what scientists had previously concluded about the components of the magma chamber.

"For the first time, we have imaged the continuous volcanic plumbing system under Yellowstone," said first author Hsin-Hua Huang, a postdoctoral researcher in geology and geophysics. "That includes the upper crustal magma chamber we have seen previously, plus a lower crustal magma reservoir that has never been imaged before and that connects the upper chamber to the Yellowstone hotspot plume below."

The seismologists discovered the chamber 12 to 28 miles beneath the surface and found that it is 4.4 times larger than the shallower magma chamber that scientists have known about for quite some time.

According to Jamie Farrell, a co-author of the study published in the journal Science, while the newly discovered chamber will fill the Grand Canyon 11.2 times, the originally known chamber is smaller but still not tiny by any stretch of the imagination as it would fill the Grand Canyon 2.5 times.

Researchers stress that this doesn't mean that there is a greater risk or increase chances of eruption.  "The actual hazard is the same, but now we have a much better understanding of the complete crustal magma system," said study co-author Robert B. Smith, a research and emeritus professor of geology and geophysics at the University of Utah.

Smith also pointed out that the risk of earthquake is much more of a threat compared to an eruption.  The last earthquake in the area occurred in 1959 killing 28 people but the last volcanic eruption of Yellowstone happened 700,000 years ago.

"Yellowstone is a really big volcano," Farrell said. "Some of these things are on scales that we have not seen before."

A supervolcano eruption at Yellowstone would easily cover the entire continent of North America in volcanic ash and would be cataclysmic if it happened today, but the annual chance of an eruption in the area is only 1 in 700,000.

Previous research indicates that the plume of Yellowstone emerges from a depth of at least 440 miles in the Earth's mantle with some researchers suspecting that it originates 1,800 miles deep at the Earth's core.