The Yellowstone supervolcano could wake up more quickly than we thought

October 11, 2017, 3:07 p.m.
Aerial view of Grand Prismatic Spring at Yellowstone National Park
Photo: Jim Peaco/U.S. National Park Service

There is a supervolcano beneath Yellowstone National Park, capable of spewing 1,000 cubic kilometers of magma in a single eruption. That hasn't happened in more than 600,000 years, but the supervolcano is still active — as evidenced by Yellowstone's famous assortment of geothermal features, such as the Grand Prismatic Spring pictured above.

It's unclear if or when Yellowstone might erupt like that again, according to the U.S. National Park Service, but it's "very unlikely in the next thousand or even 10,000 years." Still, it would be unwise to ignore the risk; NASA has even considered a plan to defuse the supervolcano by cooling it with water. Beyond the immediate destruction in states near Yellowstone, another big eruption would release a vast blanket of ash that could lead to volcanic winter, including widespread crop failures and food shortages.

Yellowstone may already be active, but another supereruption would be foreshadowed by detectable clues that could give humans time to prepare. There would be large-scale movements of magma below the surface, for example, a process many scientists have expected to unfold over thousands of years. Recent research has suggested supervolcanoes aren't always so sluggish, however, with ancient eruptions at some calderas possibly occurring as quickly as 500 years after the earliest signs.

And now, new findings suggest Yellowstone might be able to wake up even faster than that. By studying trace crystals from one of its past eruptions, researchers from Arizona State University discovered that magma moved into position just decades before the outburst. As the New York Times reports, that suggests the risk can change dramatically within a human lifetime.

More research will be needed to verify the specific timing, researcher and Arizona State graduate student Hannah Shamloo tells the Times. But in the meantime, this is a powerful reminder about the dangerous world lurking under our feet. "It's shocking how little time is required to take a volcanic system from being quiet and sitting there to the edge of an eruption," Shamloo says.

Related on MNN: What can we learn from the giant volcano under Yellowstone?