Yellowstone Supervolcano May Rumble to Life Faster Than Thought

A new study of ancient ash suggests that the dormant giant could develop the conditions needed to blow in a span of mere decades.

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OCTOBER 11, 2017

If the supervolcano underneath Yellowstone erupts again, we may have far less advance warning time than we thought.

After analyzing minerals in fossilized ash from the most recent mega-eruption, researchers at Arizona State University think the supervolcano last woke up after two influxes of fresh magma flowed into the reservoir below the caldera.

And in an unsettling twist, the minerals revealed that the critical changes in temperature and composition built up in a matter of decades. Until now, geologists had thought it would take centuries for the supervolcano to make that transition.

A 2013 study, for instance, showed that the magma reservoir that feeds the supervolcano is about two and a half times larger than previous estimates. Scientists also think the reservoir is drained after every monster blast, so they thought it should take a long time to refill. Based on the new study, it seems the magma can rapidly refresh—making the volcano potentially explosive in the geologic blink of an eye.

“It’s shocking how little time is required to take a volcanic system from being quiet and sitting there to the edge of an eruption,” study co-author Hannah Shamloo told the New York Times.

Still, Yellowstone is one of the best monitored volcanoes in the world, notes Michael Poland, the current Scientist-in-Charge of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory for the U.S. Geological Survey. A variety of sensors and satellites are always looking for changes, and right now, the supervolcano does not seem to pose a threat.

"We see interesting things all the time ... but we haven't seen anything that would lead us to believe that the sort of magmatic event described by the researchers is happening," says Poland via email, adding that the research overall is "somewhat preliminary, but quite tantalizing."

The new paper adds to a suite of surprises scientists have uncovered over the last few years as they have studied the supervolcano. (Also find out about a supervolcano under Italy that has recently been rumbling.)

Read more at National Geographic