It’s the awe-inspiring pride of the United States – and it harbours a deadly power that could kill us all.
Yellowstone National Park is pristine wilderness, full of scenic landscape and iconic hot-pools and geysers that attract tens of thousands of visitors every year.
But it’s what lies beneath that has scientists scurrying.
We’ve long known that Yellowstone is merely the skin on top of a supervolcano – a giant pool of magma sitting just under the Earth’s surface.
Exactly how giant has been the subject of much speculation.
A team from the University of Utah have told the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in San Francisco that Yellowstone’s magama chamber is 2.5 times larger than previously thought.
It is an underground cavern measuring some 90km by 30km and containing between 200 and 300 billion cubic kilometres of molten rock.
If it blows it will wipe out America – and have enormous impacts on the rest of the world.
The university researchers described their discovery as “astounding”.
Prof Bob Smith told the BBC: “We’ve been working there for a long time, and we’ve always thought it would be bigger … but this finding is astounding.”
The research is part of an ongoing effort to assess the true threat the molten beast represents.
Earth-shattering … an eruption of the Yellowstone Supervolcano would affect life all around the globe. Image: Sean Callinan Source: News Limited
WHAT IS A SUPERVOLCANO?
The common picture of a volcano being a mountainous cone of ash and lava does not apply to the supervolcanos like Yellowstone.
These are vast spaces of collapsed crust that formed pools – known as calderas – under a seemingly normal surface. Only mapping reveals the gentle swell, over a space of hundreds of square kilometres, that contains the cauldron of molten magma below.
From analysis of rock and sediment layers, scientists say another eruption is almost due – at least by geological standards.
It appears the supervolcano explodes roughly once every 700,000 years.
Three such eruptions are known: One was 2.1 million years ago. Another was 1.3 million years ago.
The most recent was 640,0000 years ago.
Global fallout … ash would encircle the globe and affect the climate for decades. Here (AP / Binsar Bakkara) Source: AP
So what would happen if Yellowstone was to erupt?
Something close to Armageddon.
Soil samples reveal that the last time it happened the whole of North America was smothered by ash. The lava flow was almost as great.
The streams of molten rock were hundreds of kilometres long, and kilometres thick.
Such was the extent of the smoke and debris cloud generated by the eruption that the climate of the entire world was affected for several centuries.
Fallout zone … How far the ash and debris from previous eruptions at Yellowstone have spread. Source: News Limited
MEASURING THE BEAST
The ongoing rumbles caused by earthquakes in and around Yellowstone National Park provided the means by which the full extent of the magma chamber was revealed.
As the seismic waves moved through the ground, the different speeds of their travel was recorded by a network of seismometers.
“The waves travel slower through hot and partially molten material … with this, we can measure what’s beneath.” Dr Jamie Farrell, from the University of Utah, said.
Fatal attraction … mist over hot spring in winter landscape at Yellowstone National Park’s Grand Prismatic Spring.Source: ThinkStock
BUT WAIT: THERE’S MORE
Twenty “smaller” supervolcanoes have been found nearby, on the Utah / Nevada state border.
The new study published in the journal Geosphere shows that these volcanoes are not active today. But, 30 million years ago, they spilt more than 5500 cubic kilometres of magma during a one-week period.
“In southern Utah, deposits from this single eruption are 4km thick. Imagine the devastation – it would have been catastrophic to anything living within hundreds of miles,” Dr Eric Christiansen of Brigham Young University said.