Yellowstone Eruption

Welded tuff at Yellowstone National Park.

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Millions of people visit Yellowstone National Park every year, but how many think about the fact that they’re standing on top of one of the largest volcano calderas on Earth? Within the last 17 million years, there have been more than 100 large eruptions within the Yellowstone caldera, and thousands of smaller lava flows and steam explosions. In fact, the last great Yellowstone eruption happened about 70,000 years ago, and it only seems like a matter of time before it all happens again. Don’t panic, though, geologists monitor Yellowstone carefully, and they don’t think any large eruptions will happen soon.

The Yellowstone calderas measures 55 km wide by 72 km long, and rises to an elevation of 3,142 meters at its tallest point – Mount Sheridan. The constant uprise of the region created a plateau where there used to be a mountain range. These eruptions and uplift helped create the eastern Snake River Plain.

In the last 17 million years, there have been 142 caldera-forming eruptions in Yellowstone. This is an eruption large enough that a significant amount of lava, ash or rock were released – usually as an explosive eruption. Three of these eruptions have been classified as “super eruptions”, where up to 2,500 cubic km of ash and rock exploded out of the volcano. Just for comparison, Mount St. Helens, which erupted in 1980, only released 1 cubic km of material… so 2,500 times that in a single eruption. One of these super eruptions would have devastated most of North America, and cooled the climate of planet Earth for decades. The oldest of these Yellowstone eruptions happened 2.1 million years ago, which created the Huckleberry Ridge Tuff. The next oldest happened 1.3 million years ago, and the most recent super eruption happened about 640,000 years ago.

And since that last super eruption, there have been numerous smaller (but still powerful eruptions) non-explosive eruptions. The most recent lava flow has been estimated to have occurred about 70,000 years ago, and a steam explosion created a 5-km crater 13,800 years ago. The only eruptions that happen at Yellowstone today are the numerous geothermal vents around the caldera. These mix with water to create the famous geysers, like Old Faithful. These geysers indicate that Yellowstone is still a very active region, and more eruptions are likely.

Geologists are continuing to monitor the Yellowstone caldera, including the speed at this the caldera floor is rising up. Like Hawaii, Yellowstone is created by a single volcanic hotspot located under the Earth. The North American Plate is slowly moving over top of the hotspot, creating a long chain of calderas. The current caldera in Wyoming is the current location of the hotspot. Geologists have measured that the caldera floor is rising upwards at almost 7 cm per year. Fortunately, they find no evidence that we’re due for another super Yellowstone eruption. Of course, these things are difficult to predict.

We have written many articles about volcanoes for Universe Today. Here’s an article about about a Yellowstone-like formation on Mars, and an article about how extreme life in Yellowstone might offer hope for the search for life on Mars.

Want more resources on the Earth? Here’s a link to NASA’s Human Spaceflight page, and here’s NASA’s Visible Earth.

We have also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast about Earth, as part of our tour through the Solar System – Episode 51: Earth.

Source: Wikipedia

Barcena Volcano

Barcena

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Barcena is a volcano located on the island of San Benedicto, the third largest island of the Revillagigedo Islands. The whole island is only about 4.8 km by 2.4 km and Barcena takes up a good chunk of the southern end. Barcena rises to an elevation of 332 meters, forming a volcanic crater.

There has only been on eruption from Barcena in recorded history, but it was a big one. On August 1, 1952, Barcena had a severe Vulcanian eruption measuring 3 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index. It released huge pyroclastic flows that rolled over the entire island, covering it in ash and pumice to a depth of 3 meters. Within less than 2 weeks, it had created a new volcanic cone more than 300 meters high. A second series of eruptions started up later in the year, releasing magma that broke out of the cone and flowed into the ocean. By late 1953, the volcano went dormant again.

The eruption wiped out all the plants and wildlife on the island, making the San Benedicto Rock Wren extinct. Within a few years the plants and wildlife made a return, although the island still looks barren.

We have written many article about volcanoes for Universe Today. Here’s an article about Tacana, a tall stratovolcano that straddles the border between Mexico and Guatemala. And here’s an article about Paricutin, a volcano that suddenly appeared in a farmer’s cornfield.

Want more resources on the Earth? Here’s a link to NASA’s Human Spaceflight page, and here’s NASA’s Visible Earth.

We have also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast about Earth, as part of our tour through the Solar System – Episode 51: Earth.

Basalt

Lava fountain in Hawaii.

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Basalt is a hard, black volcanic rock with less than 52% silica. Because of this low silica content, basalt has a low viscosity (thickness), and so it can flow for long distances after erupting from a volcano. During an eruption, a basalt lava flow can easily move more than 20 km away from a vent. Basalt is the most common rock type in the Earth’s crust. In fact, most of the ocean floor is made up of basalt.

Basalt is made up of dark colored materials like pyroxene and olivine, but it also contains lighter minerals like feldspar and quartz. These crystals form because the lava cools slowly after erupting out of a volcano. Although a lava flow might look cool shortly after an eruption, it might take months or even years to cool all the way through. The crystals are bigger in the middle of a cooled lava flow because that part had longer to cool. If a lava flow cools quickly, like when it falls into a lake or ocean, it becomes a glass-like rock called obsidian. This is because the crystals in the rock don’t have time to form.

Shield volcanoes are made up entirely of basalt lava eruptions. A good example of this are the volcanoes Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii. Over hundreds of thousands of years, they have built up tall volcanoes that are extremely wide because of the fast flowing basalt lava.

Geologists have found large outpourings of lava covering hundreds of kilometers of land called flood basalt. The largest of these is known as the Siberian Traps in northern Russia. This is a region of 1.5 million square kilometers covered by basalt.

We have written many articles about volcanoes for Universe Today. Here’s an article about obsidian, and here’s an article about different types of lava.

Want more resources on the Earth? Here’s a link to NASA’s Human Spaceflight page, and here’s NASA’s Visible Earth.

We have also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast about Earth, as part of our tour through the Solar System – Episode 51: Earth.

What are Active Volcanoes?

Strombolian eruption

Geologists classify volcanoes into three distinct groups: dormant, extinct and active volcanoes. Dormant volcanoes haven’t erupted in a long time, but they could again; extinct volcanoes have erupted for thousands of years and might be dead. Active volcanoes, on the other hand, erupted recently, and they’re probably going to erupt again soon.

There are approximately 500 active volcanoes in the world today, not including those underneath the oceans. In fact, as you read these words, there are probably 20 volcanoes erupting right now. Between 50-70 volcanoes are erupting every year, 160 have erupted in the last decade. And there are about 550 that have erupted since the beginning of recorded history.

The definition of an active volcano is difficult to pin down, since single volcanoes can have networks of volcanic vents across their flanks. And Iceland, there can be eruptions along volcanic fields hundreds of kilometers long. At Mexico’s Michoacan-Guanajuanto field, there are 1,400 cinder cones, maars and shield volcanoes coming from a single magma chamber.

And these are just the volcanoes on land. Scientists estimate that 3/4 of the lava that reaches the Earth’s surface happens underwater at the submarine midocean ridges.

So when does a volcano become dormant or extinct? A volcano is active if it’s currently erupting or showing signs of unrest. The Smithsonian Global Volcanism Program defines an active volcano as having erupted within the last 10,000 years. A volcano finally goes extinct when there’s no lava supply in the magma chamber beneath the volcano.

We have written many articles about volcanoes for Universe Today. Here’s an article about dormant volcanoes, and here’s an article about extinct volcanoes.

Want more resources on the Earth? Here’s a link to NASA’s Human Spaceflight page, and here’s NASA’s Visible Earth.

We have also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast about Earth, as part of our tour through the Solar System – Episode 51: Earth.

A’a Lava

A'a lava

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There are several different kinds of lava, depending on the chemical composition and temperature of the molten rock that erupts from a volcano. The smooth variety is called pahoehoe, and the rougher variety is known as a’a (pronounced ah-ah). A’a is a Hawaiian word meaning “stony with rough lava”.

If you’ve ever been to the Big Island of Hawaii and gone for a hike, you’ve seen a’a lava. It’s incredibly rough and jagged black rock that takes forever to walk across; and tears your shoes apart as you go.

During an eruption, a’a lava comes out of the volcano as a very thick (viscous) lava that travels very slowly. The inside of an a’a lava flow is thick and dense. Surrounding this thick dense core is a sharp spiny surface of cooling rock. These fragments of rock are carried on the top of the a’a lava flow and make a crunching grinding sound as the lava flows downhill.

Once the lava flow stops, it can take weeks or even years for the lava to harden completely. The interior dense core hardens in place with the jagged fragments surrounding it. This is why old a’a flows are so sharp and jagged.

A’a flows move slowly – you could easily outrun one – but they move fast enough to tear down buildings, cover roads, and destroy vegetation.

The smoother pahoehoe lava can turn into a’a lava as it gets further downhill. This happens because of the delicate balance of gas content in the lava, the changes in lava viscosity, and the rate of deformation as the lava flows and cools. Once this balance changes, the pahoehoe can change into a’a. Of course, a’a lava never changes back into pahoehoe.

We have written many articles about volcanoes for Universe Today. Here’s an article about lava tubes on Pavonis Mons… on Mars. And here’s an article about the dark lava floor of crater Billy.

Want more resources on the Earth? Here’s a link to NASA’s Human Spaceflight page, and here’s NASA’s Visible Earth.

We have also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast about Earth, as part of our tour through the Solar System – Episode 51: Earth.

Cinder Cone Volcanoes

Cinder cone Paricutin. Image credit: USGS

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Picture a volcano in your mind. You’re probably thinking of a cinder cone volcano, the simplest type of volcano. Cinder cone volcanos have steep sides with a bowl-shaped crater at the top.

Cinder cone volcanoes grow from a single vent in the Earth’s crust. Gas-charged lava is blown violently out of the volcano’s central vent, and the ash and rocks rain down around the vent. After multiple eruptions, the volcano takes on the familiar cone shape, with the erupted rubble forming the steep slopes. Cinder cones rarely grow much taller than 300 meters above their surroundings, and they’re common in western North America, and wherever there’s volcanic activity.

Although they can be solitary structures, cinder cones are often associated with other kinds of volcanoes, like shield volcanoes and stratovolcanoes (or a composite volcano). For example, geologists have discovered more than 100 cinder cones on the sides of Hawaii’s Mauna Kea, one of the biggest volcano in the world. Each cinder cone comes from a vent that opened up on the sides of the volcano.

One of the most famous cinder cone volcanoes erupted out of a Mexican corn field in 1943. The volcano erupted for 9 years, and quickly built up the cinder cone to 424 meters, and covered 25 km2 of fields in lava flows and rubble. Nearby towns were eventually buried in ash by the eruptions.

We have written many articles about volcanoes for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the biggest volcano on Earth, and here’s one about the largest volcano in the Solar System.

Want more resources on the Earth? Here’s a link to NASA’s Human Spaceflight page, and here’s NASA’s Visible Earth.

We have also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast about Earth, as part of our tour through the Solar System – Episode 51: Earth.