Risk of supervolcano eruption big enough to 'affect the world' far greater than thought, scientists say

Scientists have analysed the molten rock within the dormant supervolcano beneath Yellowstone National Park and found that eruption is possible without any external trigger

The eruption of a “supervolcano” hundreds of times more powerful than conventional volcanoes – with the potential to wipe out civilisation as we know it – is more likely than previously thought, a study has found.

An analysis of the molten rock within the dormant supervolcano beneath Yellowstone National Park in the United States has revealed that an eruption is possible without any external trigger, scientists said.

Scientists previously believed many supervolcanic eruptions needed earthquakes to break open the Earth’s crust so magma could escape. But new research suggests that this can happen as a result of the build-up of pressure.

Supervolcanoes represent the second most globally cataclysmic event – next to an asteroid strike – and they have been responsible in the past for mass extinctions, long-term changes to the climate and shorter-term “volcanic winters” caused  by volcanic ash cutting out the sunlight.

The last known supervolcanic eruption was believed to have occurred about 70,000 years ago at the site today of Lake Toba in Sumatra, Indonesia. It caused a volcanic winter that blocked out the sun for between six to eight years, and resulted in a period of global cooling lasting a thousand years.

A supervolcano under Yellowstone Park in Wyoming last erupted about 600,000 years ago, sending more than 1,000 cubic kilometres of ash and lava into the atmosphere – about 100 times more than the Mount Pinatubo eruption in the Philippines in 1982, which caused a noticeable period of global cooling.

 

Following Pinatubo’s eruption, the global average temperature fell by about 0.4C for several months. Scientists predict that a supervolcanic eruption would cause average global temperatures to fall by about 10C for a decade – changing life on earth.

Scientists have analysed magma from the Yellowstone caldera, a 55-mile-wide underground cavern containing between 200 and 600 cubic kilometres of molten rock, to see how it responds to changes in pressure and temperature.

Using a powerful X-ray source at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble, France, the researchers found that the density of the magma decreased significantly at the high temperatures and pressures experienced underground.

Density variations between magma and the rock surrounding it means that the lava within the supervolcano’s caldera can produce big enough forces to break through the earth’s crust, allowing the molten rock and ash to erupt from the surface, the scientists said.

“The difference in density between the molten magma in the caldera and the surrounding rock is big enough to drive the magma from the chamber to the surface,” said Jean-Philippe Perrillat of the National Centre for Scientific Research in Grenoble.

“The effect is like the extra buoyancy of a football when it is filled with air underwater, which forces it to the surface because of the denser water around it,” Dr Perrillat said.

“If the volume of magma is big enough, it should come to the surface and explode like a champagne bottle being uncorked.”

The study, published in the journal Nature Geoscience, was possible because the X-ray machine at Grenoble was able to take accurate density measurements at temperatures of up to 1,700C and pressures 36,000 times greater than normal atmospheric pressure.

“The results reveal that if the magma chamber is big enough, the overpressure caused by differences in density alone are sufficient to penetrate the crust above and initiate an eruption,” said Professor Carmen Sanchez-Valle of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich, who led the study.

Preventing a supervolcanic eruption is not possible, but scientists are currently trying to devise methods of monitoring the pressure of underground magma in order to predict whether one is imminent.

Dr Perrillat said there are no known supervolcanoes that are in danger of erupting in the foreseeable future, and it would take at least a decade or so for the magma pressure within a caldera to build up to a point where an eruption is likely.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is an excellent, large partially ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Primary Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Ashdown Group: Lead Web Developer (ASP.NET, C#) - City of London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Lead Web Develo...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee