Large Magma Reservoir Found Below Yellowstone National Park

The Grand Prismatic Spring is one of the most indelible hydrothermal features in Yellowstone National Park. (PHOTO CREDIT: Tom Murphy/National Geographic Creative/Corbis)
The Grand Prismatic Spring is one of the most indelible hydrothermal features in Yellowstone National Park. (PHOTO CREDIT: Tom Murphy/National Geographic Creative/Corbis)

Enough hot rock sits beneath Yellowstone National Park to fill the Grand Canyon nearly 14 times over, according to our best view yet of the supervolcano that lies below the famous landscape.

The first three-dimensional image of the inner workings of the Yellowstone supervolcano has revealed an 11,200-cubic-mile magma reservoir about 28 miles below the surface. A previously known 2,500-cubic-mile magma chamber sits above that, at about 12 miles deep. Both serve as conduits between a hotspot plume that may originate in the Earth’s core and the Yellowstone caldera at the planet’s surface.

“Every additional thing we learn about the Yellowstone volcanic system is one more piece in the puzzle, and that gets us closer to really understanding how the volcanic system works,” says study co-author Fan-Chi Lin of the University of Utah. “If we could better understand the transport properties of magmatic fluids, we could get a better understanding of the timing and, therefore, where we are in the volcanic cycle.”

The Yellowstone hotspot plume has been producing eruptions for the last 17 million years. Due to plate tectonics, Earth’s surface has moved over the hotspot, creating a track of ancient eruptions that stretches from the Oregon-Idaho-Nevada border—the site of the first eruption—to the Yellowstone caldera. Since the hotspot reached Yellowstone some 2 million years ago, the supervolcano has erupted three times, most recently about 640,000 years ago.

The hotspot currently feeds the geysers, hot springs and steam vents that are part of the draw of Yellowstone National Park. The chance that the supervolcano will erupt anytime soon is low—only about 1 in 700,000 annually. But should there be another eruption, the supervolcano could spew some 640 cubic miles of debris, covering large swathes of North America in ash and darkening skies for days.

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SOURCE: Smithsonian.com, Sarah Zielinski