Experts: Supervolcano Eruptions Can Progress Quickly

Experts: Supervolcano Eruptions Can Progress Quickly
A supervolcano like the Yellowstone caldera can be triggered by geological events that happen within a single lifespan, according to new research. Past understanding of supervolcanoes suggested such changes took several millennia to progress.

According to experts studying the Yellowstone Supervolcano, the events that trigger a devastating eruption can develop in as little as one person’s lifespan.

The New York Times reports:

The early evidence, presented at a recent volcanology conference, shows that Yellowstone’s most recent supereruption was sparked when new magma moved into the system only decades before the eruption. Previous estimates assumed that the geological process that led to the event took millenniums to occur.

To reach that conclusion, Hannah Shamloo, a graduate student at Arizona State University, and her colleagues spent weeks at Yellowstone’s Lava Creek Tuff — a fossilized ash deposit from its last supereruption. There, they hauled rocks under the heat of the sun to gather samples, occasionally suspending their work when a bison or a bear roamed nearby.

Ms. Shamloo later analyzed trace crystals in the volcanic leftovers, allowing her to pin down changes before the supervolcano’s eruption. Each crystal once resided within the vast, seething ocean of magma deep underground. As the crystals grew outward, layer upon layer, they recorded changes in temperature, pressure and water content beneath the volcano, much like a set of tree rings.

“We expected that there might be processes happening over thousands of years preceding the eruption,” said Christy Till, a geologist at Arizona State, and Ms. Shamloo’s dissertation adviser. Instead, the outer rims of the crystals revealed a clear uptick in temperature and a change in composition that occurred on a rapid time scale. That could mean the supereruption transpired only decades after an injection of fresh magma beneath the volcano.

The report states that such a time scale is the “blink of an eye, geologically speaking,” and much shorter than a previous study that found California’s Long Valley supervolcano caldera “awoke” hundreds of years before its eruption. If this evidence is correct, it could suggest geological processes can effect major changes in a single human lifespan.

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