Supervolcanoes, capable of wiping out life on the planet, could erupt sooner than scientist originally thought, according to research recently conducted at Yellowstone National Park, the New York Times reports.
Supervolcanoes - capable of spewing 2,500 times more material than Mount St. Helens did in 1980 - such as the one under Yellowstone are far more powerful than traditional volcanoes. An eruption is capable of plunging Earth into a volcanic winter.
Scientist believe such eruptions take place about every 100,000 years, but they’ve been surprised by some of the things they’ve learned at Yellowstone. According to the New York Times, they’re learning that the build up to these events can take place quicker than they previously thought. Decades instead of millenniums, or, scientists say, a geological blink of the eye.
Hannah Shamloo, an Arizona State University graduate student, and a team of researchers spent weeks at Yellowstone’s Lava Creek Tuff studying the fossilized ash deposit from the last eruption. An analysis of crystals in the deposit allowed them to see changes before the eruption 631,000 years ago.
“We expected that there might be processes happening over thousands of years preceding the eruption,” Christy Till, an ASU geologist and Shamloo’s dissertation adviser, told The New York Times. Instead, the work showed signs that an infusion of magma under the volcano may have occurred just decades before the eruption.
Scientists are starting to realize that the buildup to a supereruption could happen within a human lifetime, the newspaper reported.
“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,” Shamloo told the Times. She said more work is needed to determine an accurate time scale.
Geochemist Kari Cooper of the University of California told the Times that geologists need to figure out what triggers supervolcano eruptions.
“It’s one thing to think about this slow gradual buildup — it’s another thing to think about how you mobilize 1,000 cubic kilometers of magma in a decade,” she said, she told the Times. Cooper believes scientists will be able to forecasts eruptions in a matter of decades.
Scientists say the odds are small that Yellowstone or another supervolcano will erupt anytime soon, the Times and others report.