The supervolcano under Yellowstone National Park may erupt sooner than previously thought, and might wipe out life on Earth, researchers warned this week.
Scientists from Arizona State University who analyzed materials in fossilized ash from the most recent mega-eruption at Lava Creek (about 630,000 years ago) discovered that the supervolcano woke up after fresh magma flowed into the caldera, a 40-mile-wide bowl.
The previous eruption took place at Mesa Falls about 1.3 million years ago, meaning that the volcano may be primed for another explosion.
The eruption might be a doozy that spells doomsday.
If the Yellowstone volcano explodes, it will belch out more than 1,000 cubic kilometres of rock and ash – 2,500 times more than Mount St. Helens did in 1980, the AUS researchers report.
Such an event could cover most of the US in ash and possibly plunge the Earth into a volcanic winter.
The minerals revealed that changes in temperature and composition built up in only decades. Until now, geologists believed it would take centuries for the supervolcano to make that transition.
The latest information comes on the heels of a 2011 study that found that the ground above the magma reservoir had bulged by about 10 inches in seven years. “It’s an extraordinary uplift because it covers such a large area and the rates are so high,” says volcano expert Bob Smith from the University of Utah.
In 2012, other scientists reported that at least one of the past super-eruptions may have really been two events – suggesting that such large-scale events may be more common than thought.
A 2013 study showed that the magma reservoir that feeds the supervolcano is about two and a half times larger than previous estimates. Scientists believed the reservoir is drained after every huge blast, so they thought it should take a long time to refill.
Based on the latest study, it appears the magma can rapidly refresh — making the volcano potentially explosive in the geologic blink of an eye.
“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,” study co-author Hannah Shamloo told the New York Times.