Geologists have mapped the existence of a second deeper and larger magma chamber under Yellowstone National Park.
Scientists had already known about a plume, which brings molten rock up from deep in the mantle to a region about 60 kilometers below the surface. And they had also imaged a shallow magma chamber about 10 kilometers below the surface, containing about 10,000 cubic kilometers of molten material. But now they have found a deeper one, 4.5 times larger, that sits between 20 and 50 kilometers below the surface. “They found the missing link between the mantle plume and the shallow magma chamber,” says Peter Cervelli, a geophysicist in Anchorage, Alaska, who works at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Yellowstone Volcano Observatory.
The discovery does not, on its own, increase the chance of an eruption, which is driven by an emptying of the shallow chamber. The last major eruption was 640,000 years ago, and today the threat of earthquakes is far more likely. But the deeper chamber does mean that the shallow chamber can be replenished again and again. “Knowing that you have this additional reservoir tells you you could have a much bigger volume erupt over a relatively short time scale,” says co-author Victor Tsai, a geophysicist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. The discovery, reported online today in Science, also confirms a long-suspected model for some volcanoes, in which a deep chamber of melted basalt, a dense iron- and magnesium-rich rock, feeds a shallower chamber containing a melted, lighter silicon-rich rock called a rhyolite.