by Brian Handwerk / National Geographic News / Published January 19, 2011
Yellowstone National Park’s supervolcano just took a deep “breath,” causing miles of ground to rise dramatically, scientists report.
The simmering volcano has produced major eruptions—each a thousand times more powerful than Mount St. Helens’s 1980 eruption—three times in the past 2.1 million years. Yellowstone’s caldera, which covers a 25- by 37-mile (40- by 60-kilometer) swath of Wyoming, is an ancient crater formed after the last big blast, some 640,000 years ago.
(See “When Yellowstone Explodes” in National Geographic magazine.)
Since then, about 30 smaller eruptions—including one as recent as 70,000 years ago—have filled the caldera with lava and ash, producing the relatively flat landscape we see today.
But beginning in 2004, scientists saw the ground above the caldera rise upward at rates as high as 2.8 inches (7 centimeters) a year. (Related: “Yellowstone Is Rising on Swollen ‘Supervolcano.'”)
The rate slowed between 2007 and 2010 to a centimeter a year or less. Still, since the start of the swelling, ground levels over the volcano have been raised by as much as 10 inches (25 centimeters) in places.
“It’s an extraordinary uplift, because it covers such a large area and the rates are so high,” said the University of Utah’s Bob Smith, a longtime expert in Yellowstone’s volcanism.
Scientists think a swelling magma reservoir four to six miles (seven to ten kilometers) below the surface is driving the uplift. Fortunately, the surge doesn’t seem to herald an imminent catastrophe, Smith said. (Related: “Under Yellowstone, Magma Pocket 20 Percent Larger Than Thought.”)
“At the beginning we were concerned it could be leading up to an eruption,” said Smith, who co-authored a paper on the surge published in the December 3, 2010, edition of Geophysical Research Letters.
“But once we saw [the magma] was at a depth of ten kilometers, we weren’t so concerned. If it had been at depths of two or three kilometers [one or two miles], we’d have been a lot more concerned.”
Studies of the surge, he added, may offer valuable clues about what’s going on in the volcano’s subterranean plumbing, which may eventually help scientists predict when Yellowstone’s next volcanic “burp” will break out.
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