Yellowstone Supervolcano

April 16, 2011 by staff 

Yellowstone Supervolcano, Scientists using electric and magnetic sensors have been assigned the size and composition of a large plume of hot rock and brine solution to 200 miles below the surface of Yellowstone National Park, a new study to be published soon.

The so-called geoelectric “image of a pen, this measure is the first time, giving researchers a clearer view of the material that feeds the volcanic nature of Yellowstone, said Robert B. Smith, the study co-author, professor emeritus at the University of Utah and a coordinating scientist at the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory.

The information will help scientists better understand the evolution of these hot spots that are an integral part of continental drift and are active in 20 locations around the world, he said.

“This is the first time an electric image of a pen made anywhere in the world, period,” said Smith. “We are getting much more information on the composition and evolution of the earth.”

The pen is made of solid rock, in part, the molten rock salt and liquid that conducts electricity like sea water, said Smith, lead author Michael Zhdanov, professor of geophysics at the University of Utah. The plume rises from the depths of the earth at an angle of 40 degrees and extends 400 miles from east to west, the data found. The image of the plume reaches a depth of 200 km, the limit of technology.

An earlier study by Smith with the seismic waves measured the depth of the pen, at least 410 kilometers below the border with Montana and Idaho.

The study will be published in Geophysical Research Letters in the coming weeks, according to the American Geophysical Union.

The new data, which measures the electrical conductivity of the pen to create the image, supplements of seismic data that Smith gave scientists their first detailed look at the pen in 2009. Both electrical conductivity and seismic imaging technologies are revealing things differently.

Overall, the data reveal a pen that is larger and contains more than brine and fluid than previously thought.

“This is very important to better understand the physics of this column,” Zhdanov said. “We’re starting to learn. It is a very new phenomenon and we now have another tool to get a picture and a better understanding of the composition and geographically.”

This tool can help lead one day to develop a way to better-forecast volcanic eruptions and other activity, he said.

Derek Schutt, an assistant professor at Colorado State University, said others have used geoelectrical technology, but not to these proportions. Technology is a useful complement to seismic measurements and lead to a better understanding of how the land is being formed, he said.

“I think this will be especially useful is that we can better understand the distribution of magma beneath Yellowstone,” he said.

The research says nothing about the possibility of a large eruption occurring in Yellowstone, which draws millions each year to see its geysers pots bubble and jets. Yellowstone caldera, a volcanic feature a 37 by 25 miles in the middle of the park, has erupted three times since the North American continent adrift on the hot spot. The last eruption was 642,000 years ago.

The pen stops increasing about 60 miles below the surface. Part of that molten rock below, leakage, possibly through a series of fractures in the rock, a chamber about five miles below the surface of the Yellowstone caldera, Smith said. Magma chamber that fed the volcanic activity on the surface.

If enough of the pen comes off and rises to the camera, an eruption could occur. But that accumulation occurs very slowly over thousands of years, and no indication of when an eruption could occur, Zhdanov said.

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