Wyomingites who might have been packing their bags in hopes to escape agonizing death in a hellscape given the news that there’s more molten lava than previously thought under Yellowstone can unpack and relax, a volcano expert says.
“There have been news reports saying Yellowstone is ‘more likely to erupt.’ and I’m like, ‘What? The authors of the study didn’t say that,’” Michael Poland told Cowboy State Daily.
A research geophysicist with the Cascades Volcano Observatory and scientist in charge of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory, Poland was referencing a recently released study suggesting that 16-20% of the magma in the massive Yellowstone Caldera is molten. That’s up from previous estimates of 5-15% of it being molten.
Some have suggested that means there’s “twice as much” molten magma potentially ready to roar to the surface, but that’s simply not accurate, he said.
“If 20% is molten, that would mean that 80% of the magma is still solid,” he said, adding that the volcanic system under Yellowstone “is kind of seized up.”
In other words, any rumors of an imminent, cataclysmic eruption of Yellowstone and the subsequent obliteration of the Cowboy State are greatly exaggerated, Poland said.
‘Like A Better Camera Lens’
None of the information behind this recently released study is new, he said. Instead, the computer power to interpret it has improved.
A 2015 study from the University of Utah revealed that the magma chamber system underneath Yellowstone is far larger and extends farther than previously thought.
“This latest study builds on that one,” Poland said.
The basic method of reading underground volcanic conditions, tracking seismic waves, hasn’t changed, he added. What has changed is that advancements in computer power since 2015 allow researchers to better process and interpret data.
“It’s like putting a better lens on your camera so you can get a clearer picture,” he said.
There are dozens of seismic stations in the Yellowstone area. That has provided researchers with more information than they were previously able to process, Poland said.
“The volume of data coming out of there is incomprehensively big,” he said.
Now that information can be better processed, new details are emerging, such as there being more molten lava than previously thought, Poland said.
“It’s based on looking at how seismic waves travel through the earth,” he said. “The waves tend to go slower through areas that are hot, molten or sticky.
“The new techniques are using more of the data. They’re looking at the full spectrum of the seismic waves, and approximate every wiggle.”
Belching Lava More Likely Than Apocalyptic Explosion
The Yellowstone Caldera has over the ages had several massively violent eruptions. The last cataclysmic event was roughly 631,000 years ago, Poland said.
There also have been a few less dramatic “lava eruptions” when some molten rock has been belched through vents and onto the surface. The last of those is thought to have happened about 70,000 years ago, he said.
If Yellowstone is to have any sort of eruption anytime soon, it would probably be a lava flow eruption rather than a blast that would pulverize most of the park, throw dust high into the air and cover the world in darkness, he said.
However, given what researchers have been able to determine, even lava flow eruptions probably won’t happen anytime soon, Poland said.
“The thinking is, the system has just gotten stagnant,” he said. “We’re not seeing the conditions down there that favor an eruption.”