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The Yellowstone supervolcano won’t erupt without advanced warning – A N I T H
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The Yellowstone supervolcano won’t erupt without advanced warning

The Yellowstone supervolcano won’t erupt without advanced warning


The steaming Grand Prismatic Spring inside Yellowstone National Park.

Image: National Park service 

Sensational news headlines over the last couple days have promoted the idea that the formidable Yellowstone supervolcano “may blow sooner” and “could blow faster” than scientists previously thought. 

This makes it seem like Yellowstone is either threatening to erupt or might one day catastrophically explode with little warning, suffocating us frail humans under black, ashy skies.

But even if this research is accurate, we’ll still have decades of warning before an apocalyptic blast.

In the the last 2 million years, Yellowstone geologists believe that the supervolcano has had three major eruptions that unleashed hundreds of cubic miles of ash into Earth’s atmosphere. The source of these eruptions are enormous amounts of hot molten and semi-molten rock, or magma, which still sit under the park today. Scientists suspect that when enough pressure builds beneath the ground, Yellowstone will have another such major blast — although there’s no current evidence of impending doom.

At a recent volcanology conference, The New York Times reports that Arizona State graduate geology student Hannah Shamloo presented stirring new evidence that Yellowstone could show signs of an impending mega-eruption decades before a colossal blast, as opposed to thousands of years. This research is still being examined by geologists, and is not yet widely accepted research.

Shamloo and her team spent weeks at the site of Yellowstone’s most recent super-eruption, which blew some 640,000 years ago. They gathered rocky volcanic leftovers from the ancient eruption and specifically looked at the minuscule crystals embedded in the rock, which formed deep underground in magma long before the blast. In the outermost layers of the crystals they found telltale changes in the crystal’s composition, meaning the crystals were suddenly exposed to different temperatures and pressures. 

An aerial view of Excelsior Geyser and Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park.

An aerial view of Excelsior Geyser and Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park.

Image: National Park Service

This revealed something significant: This volcanic rock began moving and shifting around the deep bowels of the subterranean supervolcano much more quickly than previously thought.

But quickly in geologic time doesn’t mean in a day, or a week. Most geologists assumed this process would take thousands of years. But it could be less, on the scale of decades.

When Yellowstone experiences a mega-eruption, enormous amounts of magma must begin moving up towards the surface. This takes years and wreaks havoc on the world above, causing constant quaking and an extreme deformation of the land, including the abrupt formation of canyons. 

For comparison, when Mount St. Helens literally blew itself up in the 1980s, it dramatically spewed 0.3 cubic miles of volcanic ash into the sky. Based upon volcanic leftovers around the park, geologists believe that a Yellowstone super-eruption will send around 2,500 times more volcanic material into the atmosphere. 

In short, mobilizing such a massive eruption won’t happen overnight, and it won’t surprise us. 

What’s more, Yellowstone National Park scientists have found no signs of an impending eruption, which could leave a colossal 40-mile wide depression in the ground, called a caldera. As the park website states:

Current geologic activity at Yellowstone has remained relatively constant since scientists first started monitoring more than 30 years ago. Another caldera-forming eruption is theoretically possible, but it is very unlikely in the next thousand or even 10,000 years. Scientists have also found no indication of an imminent smaller eruption of lava.

Since humanity first stumbled upon Yellowstone, it has been an active volcanic region, with steaming springs, shooting geysers, and thousands of mostly undetectable earthquakes happening each year. This is normal. But if masses of magma begin stirring up beneath the ground, we’ll know something terrible is brewing. 

Yellowstone has the potential to destroy us. But it won’t surprise us.

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Anith Gopal
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