The reservoir of molten rock underneath Yellowstone National Park in the United States is at least two and a half times larger than previously thought. Despite this, the scientists who came up with this latest estimate say that the highest risk in the iconic park is not a volcanic eruption but a huge earthquake.
Yellowstone is famous for having a ‘hot spot’ of molten rock that rises from deep within the planet, fuelling the park’s geysers and hot springs1. Most of the magma resides in a partially molten blob a few kilometres beneath Earth’s surface.
New pictures of this plumbing system show that the reservoir is about 80 kilometres long and 20 kilometres wide, says Robert Smith, a geophysicist at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. “I don’t know of any other magma body that’s been imaged that’s that big,” he says.
Smith reported the finding on 27 October, 2013, at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America in Denver, Colorado.
Yellowstone lies in the western United States, where the mountain states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho converge. The heart of the park is a caldera — a giant collapsed pit left behind by the last of three huge volcanic eruptions in the past 2.1 million years. Jamie Farrell, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Utah, mapped the underlying magma reservoir by analysing data from more than 4,500 earthquakes. Seismic waves travel more slowly through molten rock than through solid rock, and seismometers can detect those changes.
The images show that the reservoir resembles a 4,000-cubic-kilometre underground sponge, with 6–8% of it filled with molten rock. It underlies most of the Yellowstone caldera and extends a little beyond it to the northeast.