Science

What lies beneath the Yellowstone volcano? Twice as much magma as thought

What lies beneath the Yellowstone volcano? Twice as much magma as thought

Yellowstone Caldera, sometimes called the Yellowstone Supervolcano, is a volcanic caldera and supervolcano in Yellowstone National Park in the western United States. The caldera measures 43 by 28 miles (70 by 45 kilometers).

The expertise, energy and empathy of researchers leave a legacy.

The late MSU researcher Min Chen contributed to new seismic tomography of magma deposits beneath Yellowstone Volcano.

When Ross Maguire was a postdoctoral researcher at Michigan State University (MSU), he wanted to study the volume and distribution of molten magma beneath the Yellowstone volcano. Maguire used a technique called seismic tomography, which uses ground vibrations known as seismic waves to create a 3D image of what’s happening beneath the Earth’s surface. Using this method, Maguire was able to create a frame image of a magma chamber that shows where the magma is located. But these are not crystal clear pictures.

As a result of these new images, along with key contributions from Chen, Maguire and his team were able to see that, in fact, twice as much magma exists in the Yellowstone magma system.

“I was looking for people who are experts in a particular type of computed seismic tomography called wavelet tomography,” said Maguire, now an assistant professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). “Min Chen was truly a world expert on this.”

Min Chen was an assistant professor at MSU in the Department of Computational Mathematics, Science and Engineering and the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences in the College of Life Sciences. Using the power of supercomputers, Chen developed a method applied to Maguire’s images to more accurately model how seismic waves travel through the Earth. Chen’s creativity and skill brought those images into sharper focus, revealing more information about the amount of molten magma beneath the Yellowstone volcano.

“We haven’t seen an increase in the amount of magma,” Maguire said. “We just saw a clearer picture of what was already there.”

Min Chen

Min Chen. Credit: MSU

Previous images showed that the Yellowstone volcano had a low concentration of magma – only 10% – surrounded by a solid crystalline framework. As a result of these new images, along with key contributions from Chen, Maguire and his team were able to see that, in fact, twice as much magma exists in the Yellowstone magma system.

“To be clear, the new discovery does not indicate the likelihood of a future eruption,” Maguire said. “Any signs of changes in the system would be picked up by the network of geophysical instruments that continuously monitor Yellowstone.”

Unfortunately, Chen never saw the final results. Her unexpected death in 2021 continues to send shockwaves throughout the Earth science community, which mourns the loss of her passion and expertise.

“Computational seismology is still relatively new at MSU,” said Songqiao “Shawn” Wei, assistant professor of geological sciences in MSU’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, who was Chen’s colleague. “When the pandemic hit, Chen made her lectures and research discussions available on Zoom where researchers and students from around the world could participate. That’s how many seismologists around the world got to know MSU.”

Her meetings were a place where gifted undergraduates, postdocs, or simply anyone interested was welcome to attend. Chen included prospective graduates as well as experienced seismologists from around the world with her virtual invitations.

Chen cared deeply about the well-being and careers of her students. She fostered an inclusive and multidisciplinary environment in which she encouraged her students and postdoctoral fellows to become well-rounded scholars and to build long-term collaborations. She even held virtual seminars on life outside of academia to help students nurture their careers and hobbies. Chen led by example: She was an avid soccer player and knew how to tango.

Diversity in science was another area Chen felt strongly about. She championed and championed research opportunities for women and underrepresented groups. To honor Chen, her colleagues created a memorial scholarship on her behalf to provide support to graduate students to increase diversity in the computer and earth sciences. As another tribute to her life and love of gardening, Chen’s colleagues also planted a memorial tree in the engineering building plaza on the MSU campus.

Chen was truly a leader in her field and was awarded a National Science Foundation Early Career Faculty Award recipient 2020 to perform a detailed seismic image of North America to study the Earth’s solid outer shell.

“She had so much energy,” Maguire said. “She focused on making people successful while she was incredibly successful.”

Maguire’s research, which shows part of Chen’s legacy, is published in the journal Science.

References:

“Magma Accumulation at Rhyolite Prestorage Depths Beneath the Yellowstone Caldera” by Ross Maguire, Brandon Schmandt, Jiaqi Li, Chengxin Jiang, Guoliang Li, Justin Wilgus, and Min Chen, 1 Dec 2012, Science.
DOI: 10.1126/science.ade0347

“What’s Under Yellowstone? There is more magma than previously recognized, but it may not be eruptive” Kari M. Cooper, December 1, 2012, Science.
DOI: 10.1126/science.ade8435





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