Yellowstone supereruption 2015


The Yellowstone National Park is at the center of another supervolcano scare. Social media reports have indicated that the park is quietly closing down roads and evacuating tourists as the threat of the Yellowstone supervolcano eruption is imminent. However, are the concerns based in logic, or is an impending eruption simply fear mongering?

This isn’t the first time that Yellowstone National Park has been at the center of an internet debate. In fact, last year there were rumors that the park was hiding a dark secret. A number of social media “news” outlets claimed that the Yellowstone supervolcano was about to erupt and that the park authorities were closing roads and slowly evacuating people from the area in a bid to save as many lives as possible. However, shortly after the reports went viral, Yellowstone park officials put the rumors to rest and said that the fears were perpetuated after a series of errors associated with the park’s seismic activity monitors.

“One of the many seismometers installed in the park, malfunctioned and began sending zany data to a public viewer, or ‘webicorder,’ at the University of Utah’s seismographic station, which has a following among amateur volcano buffs as well as those who are looking for signs of the coming apocalypse.”

Lee Whittlesey, the Yellowstone National Park historian, notes that the data was incorrect and that the imminent doom being forecast was a sad case of public misinformation. However, it seems that Yellowstone supervolcano has become somewhat of a staple among the apocalypse-forecasting crowd. Recently, another publication indicated that a supervolcano eruption may be on the horizon as earthquake activity in the area began to pickup. The report claims that on May 18, 2015, two earthquakes struck the Wyoming and Idaho area right under the massive magma chamber of the Yellowstone supervolcano. The report indicates that the earthquakes were both in the 3.0M+ range and should be of a great concern.

The University of Utah Seismograph Station shows that one earthquake measuring 3.0M was measured on May 18 and was at a depth of three miles. However, the university called the earthquake “minor” and did not note any concern for the safety of the area.
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“A minor earthquake occurred at 5:00:51 PM (MDT) on Monday, May 18, 2015. The magnitude 3.0 event occurred 57 km (36 miles) SSE of Gardiner, MT. The hypocentral depth is 5 km ( 3 miles).”

The concerns about a potential volcanic eruption likely stem from recent research that determined the Yellowstone magma chamber is much larger than previously thought. Researchers found that the magma chamber is big enough to fill the Grand Canyon 11.2 times and is just 12 to 28 miles below the surface.

KSFY recently discussed the topic of the Yellowstone supervolcano and spoke with Yellowstone geologist Hank Heasler about the likelihood of a super eruption in the area. Heasler noted that five years ago, he was moved to a home inside of Yellowstone when park officials and geologists became concerned about unusual seismic activity in the area. It was determined that a supervolcano eruption could be nearing and more observation was needed. Heasler says he personally feels that the Yellowstone volcano will not erupt for another 100,000 years or so; however, he says it is something that should be closely monitored as “volcanism is in Yellostone’s future.”

“The frequency of earthquakes doesn’t necessarily mean its a suicidal place to be or live. However, volcanism is in Yellowstone’s future. There is no doubt about it.”

So how concerned should potential tourists to Yellowstone be about a potential supervolcano eruption during a visit to the park?

“One thing that Yellowstone has taught me is that everything changes so be careful in what you predict and forecast.”

Heasler says that though he doesn’t think a supervolcano eruption will take place for another 100,000 years, he notes that he is only confident in saying there won’t be an eruption in the “foreseeable future” which he claims is two weeks out. In other words, he says watch for alerts from Yellowstone itself and enjoy your vacation, unless something major changes.


New pictures of Yellowstone's plume show the reservoir is about 80 kilometers long and 20 kilometers wide. "I don't know of any other magma body that's been imaged that's that big," says Robert Smith, a geophysicist at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

Researchers report the super-volcano underneath the state of Wyoming has been rising at a record rate since 2004. Its floor has gone up three inches per year for the last three years indicating the fastest rate since records began in 1923.

A new study disclosed at the Geological Society of America annual conference, stated a huge earthquake measuring 9.0 mag. or larger as a result of Yellowstone's massive mantle plume expansion may be a higher risk in the near future, than a eventual volcanic eruption.

***

Underneath Yellowstone National park is a super-volcano with an absolutely mind-numbing explosive potential. A blast would be 1,000 times stronger than the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens—like 1,000 atomic bombs exploding every second. So it's a bit unnerving to know that, based on the geologic record, scientists say we're almost due for another periodic flare-up. (The last three happened 2 million, 1.2 million and 640,000 years ago). Right now volcanologists give the rough yearly odds of 1 in 700,000 that Yellowstone could go off—but exactly when or why it would erupt is still largely a mystery.

But we may have a much clearer picture of Yellowstone's potential risk, thanks to a recent scientific study. For the first time, scientists at the University of Utah have just mapped the underground roots of the Yellowstone super-volcano. Using data gained from thousands of regional and worldwide earthquakes, geologists have put together a rough subsurface 3D map—and discovered an enormous reservoir of magma in a previously uncharted zone roughly 10 to 30 miles under the surface.

"We now have a complete picture of the whole plumbing system below Yellowstone."

"This lower magma reservoir is about 4.6 times larger than the magma chamber directly below [Yellowstone's surface]," and large enough to fill 11 Grand Canyons, says Hsin-Hua Huang, a geologist at the University of Utah who led the mapping team. "We now have a complete picture of the whole plumbing system below Yellowstone," Huang says, adding that this 3D picture will allow scientists to create better models of the Yellowstone super-volcano and better understand its inner workings.

So, how do you see inside a supervolcano to understand what's happening in these hidden chambers?

Seeing by earthquake

According to Jamie Farrell, an earthquake researcher with the team at the University of Utah, the scientists put together a 3D image of Yellowstone's volcanic roots by recording local and global earthquakes—"like your doctor uses x-rays for a CT-Scan," he says.

The basic idea works like this: As an earthquake travels from its origin underneath the Earth to the surface, it may move faster or slower depending on what material it moves through. "For example, seismic waves travel slower through hot or partially molten rock," Farell says.

This is important, because if you know where a quake started and low long it took to get to your earthquake recording equipment, you can get a general idea of what may lie between. If you record thousands of quakes in many different places all at the same time, you can slowly piece together a 3D image of the ground beneath your feet.

Yellowstone is an incredibly well spotted with seismic recording equipment to record local quakes. After all, scientists want to know everything about this supervolcano in the heart of America, just in case it really is about to flare up again.

But here's the catch: These local quakes let scientists peer into ground only so far—not much deeper than 10 miles down. To get a deeper peek, the scientists borrowed data from a massive project called EarthScope, which set up earthquake recording stations across the U.S., and monitored global quakes. Monitoring these global quakes from far away can tell scientists a lot about Earth's upper mantle, the hot layer that's 30 miles or more below the planet's crust.

"It's like your doctor uses x-rays for a CT-Scan."

Finally, to fully map the Yellowstone volcano's magma roots, the researchers needed to map the middle-ground—about 10 to 30 miles under the surface—that neither global nor local quakes really reach on their own. Luckily, the scientists were "able to fill in this missing gap by combining the two data sets and creating a combined image" says Tobias Diehl, a seismological researcher at the Swiss Seismological Service who was not involved in the research. "It's a really unique peek into what was a missing link between the shallow and deep parts of the Yellowstone volcanic system."

What lies beneath

It sounds unsettling that these scientists discovered a massive reservoir of magma almost 5 times bigger than the one that lies directly underfoot at Yellowstone National Park. But Huang says the finding is not all that surprising—and certainly doesn't worry the scientists that supervolcano may blow any sooner.

A blast would be 1,000 times stronger than the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens

Huang says that the sheer amount of CO2 produced every day by Yellowstone is much, much more than could be explained by the magma chambers we already knew about. So many scientists expected an extra, large body of magma, even if they didn't know its exact size or shape.

Huang says he hopes that now that we have a 3D image of this reservoir, future research teams will be able to create much more complete models of the entire Yellowstone super-volcano system—which will let us better understand why or when we might be in danger of another flare up.




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