Researchers find new way to estimate magma beneath Yellowstone supervolcano

June 4, 2018, Washington State University
Washington State University researchers 'spike' a Yellowstone hot spring with deuterium, a stable isotope, to calculate water and heat flowing out of the springs and estimate how fast magma is recharging beneath the Yellowstone supervolcano. The material had no environmental impact and was done with a permit from the National Park Service. Credit: Washington State University

Researchers at Washington State University and the University of Idaho have found a new way to estimate how fast magma is recharging beneath the Yellowstone supervolcano. While their findings offer no help in predicting if the volcano will erupt, they can now get a better understanding of a key factor—a pool of basalt magma recharging the system—in how it works.

"It is the coal in the furnace that's heating things up," said Peter Larson, a professor in the Washington State University School of the Environment. "It's heating up the boiler. The boiler is what explodes. This tells us what is heating the boiler."

Some 640,000 years have passed since the volcano's last major eruption. But it can be "super," having produced one of the largest known blasts on Earth and spewing more than 2,000 times as much ash as Mount St. Helens did in 1980.

A major element in the volcano's power is the explosive, silica-rich rhyolite that break's through the Earth's crust during an eruption. Larson and his colleagues focused on the plume of basalt magma heating the rhyolite from below.

"This gives us an idea of how much magma is recharging the volcano every year," said Larson, whose findings appear in the latest issue of the journal Geosphere.

With funding from the National Science Foundation, the researchers "spiked" several hot springs in Yellowstone National Park with deuterium, a stable hydrogen isotope. The researchers used the length of time needed for deuterium concentrations to return to background levels and the temperature of the to calculate the amount of water and heat flowing out of the springs. Using deuterium for estimating heat flow is safe for the environment and has no visual impact to distract from the park visitors' experience.

The team found that previous studies underestimated the amount of water coursing through the springs and the amount of heat leaving the springs. The data also allowed the team to estimate the amount of entering the supervolcano from the mantle.

The study also has implications for geothermal energy, helping inform how heat is transported to the earth's surface from molten rock.

Explore further: Scientists decipher the magma bodies under Yellowstone

More information: Nicholas McMillan et al, Direct measurement of advective heat flux from several Yellowstone hot springs, Wyoming, USA, Geosphere (2018). DOI: 10.1130/GES01598.1

Related Stories

Study: Yellowstone magma much bigger than thought (Update)

December 16, 2013

The hot molten rock beneath Yellowstone National Park is 2 ½ times larger than previously estimated, meaning the park's supervolcano has the potential to erupt with a force about 2,000 times the size of Mount St. Helens, ...

Volcanic crystals give a new view of magma

June 15, 2017

Volcanologists are gaining a new understanding of what's going on inside the magma reservoir that lies below an active volcano and they're finding a colder, more solid place than previously thought, according to new research ...

Recommended for you

The pace at which the world's permafrost soils are warming

January 16, 2019

Global warming is causing increasing damage in the world's permafrost regions. As the new global comparative study conducted by the international permafrost network GTN-P shows, in all regions with permafrost soils the temperature ...

Sewers could help clean the atmosphere

January 16, 2019

Sewage treatment—an unglamorous backbone of urban living—could offer a cost-effective way to combat climate change by flushing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.