Should we worry about the Yellowstone supervolcano?

I was scrolling through Facebook earlier this week when an article caught my eye. The article, Yellowstone’s Supervolcano Could Erupt Much Faster Than Anyone Thought was shared by one of the geology pages I follow. This got me thinking about my fear of volcanoes as a child. I was terrified of a volcano erupting and making me burn to death. Ah, the good times.

Yellowstone is one of the most popular supervolcanoes today. Many scientists estimate that supereruptions happen every 100,000 years; Yellowstone’s last eruption was 631,000 years ago, so it makes sense that people would be concerned.

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The highlighted are where ash beds have been identified from previous Yellowstone eruptions. Image from GeologyIn.com

The study this article focuses on is looking into how long it takes for conditions to build up for a supereruption to occur after fresh magma becomes available in the chamber. This time estimate would tell us how long it would take for another supereruption to occur, as well as give us a rough estimate of when we could expect one to occur (if we have the right conditions forming, we could expect an eruption to occur in a certain range of years).

Hannah Shamloo, a graduate student at Arizona State University, conducted this research with some colleagues. They gathered samples from Yellowstone’s Lava Creek Tuff and analyzed the crystals in the rocks. These crystals originate in the magma and grow as the magma cools. As these crystals grow, they record changes in temperature, pressure, and water content (these changes are very apparent in zircon crystals in the form of “zoning“).

Shamloo and her dissertation adviser, Christy Till, expected the process to occur over thousands of years, but instead found that the outer zones indicate an increase in temperature and change in composition over a short period of time. Essentially, they found that i’s possible that these conditions could have occurred decades after fresh magma entered the chamber. A previous study noted that the “awakening” of another supervolcano, one under Long Valley in California, took only a few hundred years. This is important because it shows that these conditions can build in a human lifetime instead of thousands of years previously expected.

This isn’t all negative though: Shamloo has warned that more research is needed before we can give a definite answer to her research question. Another scientist, geochemist Kari Cooper from UC Davis, has agreed that this research offers new insights into time frames of supereruptions, but that she isn’t convinced yet that we can pin the precise trigger of the last Yellowstone eruption event. That’s another individual supporting more research on this topic before accepting a definite answer.

So, should we be worried? The answer is, not yet. More research is needed before we can give a definite answer to how long it takes for the conditions of a supervolcano eruption to build up. Until then, we can go along our own merry ways in blissful ignorance.

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