Researchers at Washington State University and the University of Idaho have found a new way to estimate how fast magma is recharging beneath the Yellowstone supervolcano.

Peter Larson.

While their findings offer no help in predicting if the volcano will erupt, they now can get a better understanding of a key factor behind how it works — a pool of basalt magma recharging the system. “It is the coal in the furnace that’s heating things up,” said Peter Larson, a professor in WSU’s School of the Environment. “It’s heating up the boiler. The boiler is what explodes. This tells us what is heating the boiler.”

Some 640,000 years have passed since the volcano’s last major eruption. But it can still be “super,” having produced one of the largest known blasts on Earth and spewing more than 2,000 times as much ash as Mount St. Helens did in 1980.

A major element in the volcano’s power is the explosive, silica-rich rhyolite that break’s through the Earth’s crust during an eruption. Larson and his colleagues focused on the plume of basalt magma heating the rhyolite from below.

“This gives us an idea of how much magma is recharging the volcano every year,” said Larson, whose findings appear in the latest issue of the journal Geosphere.

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