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Caldera chronicles: Researchers uncover more Yellowstone super eruptions

Caldera chronicles: Researchers uncover more Yellowstone super eruptions

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Grey’s Landing

The Grey’s Landing Ignimbrite in Idaho is shown with Thomas Knott, of the University of Leicester, England, standing next to it for scale. The entire cliff (and more not seen) would have been deposited in a matter of moments as it welded to the land surface during a super eruption about 8.7 million years ago. The bright orange layer at the base of the cliff represents the upper land surface soil at the time of the eruption, which was burnt and baked to terracotta by the heat of the ash flow.

Yellowstone Caldera Chronicles is a weekly column written by scientists and collaborators of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory. This week's contribution is from Thomas Knott, geochemist at the University of Leicester, England.

The Yellowstone hotspot is well known to have produced super eruptions, such as the colossal Huckleberry Ridge Tuff eruption 2.1 million years ago and the more recent formation of Yellowstone Caldera 631,000 years ago. However, previously undiscovered Yellowstone hotspot super-eruptions are emerging from the rock record in southern Idaho, where the hotspot "burned" its way through the crust several million years ago.

Researchers at the University of Leicester, in England, have announced the discovery of two newly identified Yellowstone hotspot super eruptions, including what they believe was the largest and most cataclysmic event of the volcanic province’s history. The results suggest the hotspot, which today fuels the famous geysers, mudpots, and fumaroles in Yellowstone National Park, may be decreasing in intensity.

In the study published in the journal Geology, the team explained how a combination of analytical techniques, including chemistry, magnetic data, and radio-isotopic dates, was used to “fingerprint” and correlate volcanic deposits scattered across tens of thousands of square kilometers. Deposits previously believed to belong to multiple, smaller eruptions were, in fact, correlated. These colossal sheets of volcanic material formed from two previously unknown super eruptions that occurred about 9.0 and 8.7 million years ago.

The younger of the two, the Grey’s Landing super eruption, is now the largest recorded event of the entire Yellowstone volcanic province, erupting more than 2800 km3 of volcanic material in a single event. This eruption was larger than the previous record-holder (the aforementioned Huckleberry Ridge Tuff) and would have had devastating local and global effects. The eruption enamelled an area the size of New Jersey in searing-hot volcanic glass that would have abruptly sterilized the land surface. In addition, particulates would have choked the stratosphere, raining fine ash over much of the United States and gradually encompassing the globe. Interestingly, the far-flung ash records of these eruptions are yet to be found, and once identified would increase their volumes of the eruptions even more.

The discovery of these two new super-eruptions brings the total number to 11 throughout the history of Yellowstone hotspot volcanic province, from about 16.5 million years ago to the present, and there may still be others waiting to be identified. Based on this record, researchers were able to demonstrate that the recurrence rate of Yellowstone hotspot super eruptions several million years ago was, on average, once every 500,000 years. In comparison, three large-scale eruptions have originated from Yellowstone National Park in the past 3 million years, but only two were super eruptions. This equates to a recurrence rate of one super eruption every 1.5 million years — a three-fold decrease in the frequency of these colossal events.

Could this decline suggest that the Yellowstone hotpot is losing steam? This remains an intriguing possibility, and perhaps not unexpected as the hotspot starts to encounter colder and thicker continental crust as it migrates to the northeast due to the motion of the North American plate. But there may also be other super eruptions in Yellowstone’s geologic past that have yet to be discovered. Only time and further research will tell, and the work in Idaho provides a guide for how that further research might be done.

Regardless, we must remain vigilant, since even if Yellowstone’s magmatic system is in decline, it may still erupt lava flows or experience smaller explosive eruptions in the future.

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