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Scientists discover strange magma reservoir beneath Yellowstone

It’s a monster lurking underneath a beautiful park: many experts believe that a massive volcano will someday blow where Yellowstone National Park sits, and researchers have finally created a complete diagram of the volcanic system’s plumbing.

An eruption at Yellowstone would be 1,000 times as powerful as the devastating 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption, which means an explosion of that magnitude would disrupt the entire globe, according to a Washington Post report.

A research team from the University of Utah has published a study in the journal Science that attempts to examine this potentially devastating supervolcano in depth, and they have found a missing link in the system.

That missing link is a magma chamber that has melted rock in the midst of a lot of solid rock. While the chamber has been documented before, what wasn’t known is the massive reservoir of hot magma that would be enough to fill the Grand Canyon. This magma is on top of an even longer plume of magma that reaches into the Earth’s mantle.

It’s been there for about 17 million years, remaining relatively unchanged except for minor changes with the movements of the tectonic plate. It has been moving toward the southwest at a pace of about an inch per year.

You can see the tectonic plate migrating from above, as a trail of calderas can be found in Idaho, Oregon, and Nevada, something that has also happened on the very active volcanic islands of Hawaii.

Robert Smith, who is the emeritus professor of geophysics at the University of Utah and co-authored the paper, called it a giant conduit that starts at 1,000 kilometers into the Earth.

This doesn’t meant Yellowstone is about to blow its top, which could potentially doom everyone in the United States, if not the whole world. It does allow scientists to better understand the plumbing of the volcano.

Another co-author of the paper, geophysicist Jamie Farrell, said in the Post that understanding how the eruptions might occur would be helpful to understand, and since no one has ever seen a truly massive eruption, it’s hard to say exactly what it will happen and it won’t necessarily look like the smaller eruptions we’re used to.

Smith said the magma system could get enough fluid to create another caldera and a set of massive explosions.

To make the observations, scientists used what is essentially an MRI of the crust underneath Yellowstone. Because the region has lots of small earthquakes, the tremors can be recorded by seismographs around the park and across the United States can measure how long it takes to reach the instruments — because seismic waves go slower when they go through hot rock, it makes it a matter of math to determine where the magma is and how much of it there is. It’s a process known as “seismic tomography.”

It’s been 640,000 years since Yellowstone last erupted, leaving behind a hole that is 25 miles by 37 miles across and has since been filled in with lava and erosion that has led to the creation of Yellowstone Lake.

How likely are we to see an explosion at Yellowstone? Not likely. It takes hundreds of thousands of years for a massive eruption to happen, and the cycle generally runs about 700,000 years. That means we’re about due, but we still have another 60,000 years to go, give or take. That’s certainly well beyond our lifetimes.