For many years, scientists have dismissed the threat of a supervolcano eruption at Yellowstone. They have always contended that the process before an eruption takes thousands of years and this is not something we would ever see in our lifetime. This theory is now being tested as recent activity at Yellowstone point to the build-up, and then eruption, happening over a much short period. There is a reason to be concerned as scientists study the changes to the landscape, including a series of small earthquakes, which is cause for grave concern.
There have been roughly 2,500 small earthquakes in the area since mid-July. This may be a sign that there is magma moving under the surface and an eruption is getting closer to being a reality. This type of seismic activity is what triggered officials in Washington state to prepare for the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. In that case, it was well documented that the change is usually the first sign that an eruption is nearing.
The eruption of Mount St. Helens is what many people think of when we talk about a volcano in the United States. To understand the magnitude of the threat from the Yellowstone volcano, it is helpful to compare the two. According to a recent report about Yellowstone:
“…the Yellowstone caldera is a behemoth far more powerful than your average volcano. It has the ability to expel more than 1,000 cubic kilometers of rock and ash at once, 2,500 times more material than erupted from Mount St. Helens in 1980, which killed 57 people. That could blanket most of the United States in a thick layer of ash and even plunge the Earth into a volcanic winter.”
The recent earthquakes at Yellowstone are especially troubling as this is the most significant series ever recorded at the park. If these tremors are a sign that magma is moving underground, the change in the volcano could lead to an eruption mere years away instead of centuries away. Officials are now taking this warning seriously.
Many scientists now are considering the idea that the eruption of the caldera may not be a thousand years in the making, but instead a process of building up pressure over ten years or less. A recent report about the change in thinking explained:
“We expected that there might be processes happening over thousands of years preceding the eruption. 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 super eruption transpired only decades after an injection of fresh magma beneath the volcano.”
The experts who regularly study the activity at Yellowstone seem to suddenly be stumped by the series of earthquakes. Before the earthquakes, they gathered the most substantial amount of their data about the super volcano from rocks and evidence left over from the last major eruption. This may not have given them a clear picture of the actual threat. They are also starting to expand what they study to tell them when an eruption may be imminent, and this idea has been echoed by others within the scientific community.
Scientists at NASA have even gone as far as taken real steps to explore how they may be able to stop the supervolcano eruption if it seems to loom. They are not going just to watch as the caldera threatens the entire United States. A recent news story shared that “…the agency has devised a potential strategy to try and defuse an eruption should one appear imminent, though according to several the techniques involved – specifically, pumping water directly into the volcano’s magma chamber – involve significant risks.”
The eruption of 1980 in Washington state was devastating to the local area and pushed ash into the atmosphere. It took the area more than a decade to recover. That type of explosion is nothing compared to the potential devastation that could be brewing under the surface at Yellowstone. Scientists are eager to see if the earthquakes continue as a sign that more magma is moving underground. The team at NASA is also toying with the idea that they might just get to test their water theory to stop the eruption within their lifetime.