This blog provides commentary on interesting geological events occurring around the world in the context of my own work. This work is, broadly, geological fluid dynamics. The events that I highlight here are those that resonate with my professional life and ideas, and my goal is to interpret them in the context of ideas I've developed in my research. The blog does not represent any particular research agenda. It is written on a personal basis and does not seek to represent the University of Illinois, where I am a professor of geology and physics. Enjoy Geology in Motion! I would be glad to be alerted to geologic events of interest to post here! I hope that this blog can provide current event materials that will make geology come alive.

Banner image is by Ludie Cochrane..

Susan Kieffer can be contacted at s1kieffer at gmail.com

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

How big is the plume under Yellowstone?

3-D resistivity model from Zhdanov et al. ** A better
figure of this is Fig. 4 in their paper, which compares
the seismic and electrical results, but I am unable to
copy it from the preprint that is posted in GRL. I'll try to
remember to post it when published.
Yellowstone, Wyoming, USA, is one of the world's largest hot spots, with a record of super-eruptions at ~650,000 year intervals (2.1 million, 1.4 million, and 640,000 years ago).  It's fodder for speculation about an overdue super-eruption in press articles and movies. The USGS maintains an active observing program at Yellowstone.

Robert Smith, University of Utah geophysicist, has spent much of his career studying the subsurface conditions and modeling the size of the plume that underlies Yellowstone. In 2009, Smith reported on a seismic study that showed that the plume of hot, possibly partially melted rock, dips downward from Yellowstone at an angle of 60 degrees.  This plume extends 150 miles west-northwest and reaches at least 410 miles depth under the Montana-Idaho border.  This is as far as the seismic imaging permits resolution of the structure.

In a work to be published in Geophysical Research Letters this month**, summarized in this Science Daily article, Smith and colleagues now report on a study of the electrical conductivity beneath Yellowstone, the first of its kind.  Electrical conductivity yields an image of melted rocks plus hot salty water--the geothermal system that surrounds the magmatic plume.  This plume appears larger than that revealed through seismic imaging.  The plume dips at an angle of ~40 degrees to the west, extending ~400 miles east-west, and goes at least 200 miles deep. The overall picture is of a tilted molten core that looks something like a tilted tornado surrounded by a sheath of hot water. Seismic and ground-deformation studies show that the top of the plume flattens out like a pancake about 50 miles beneath Yellowstone--a 300 mile diameter pancake! Blobs of hot partially molten rock break off of the top of this reservoir and rise to feed the shallow magma chamber that is 4-10 miles below the surface in Yellowstone.

**Zhdanov, M.S., Smith, R.B., Gribenko, A., Cuma, M., and Green, M., Three-dimensional inversion of large-scale EarthScope magnetotelluric data based on the Integral Equation Method: Geoelectricla imaging of the Yellowstone conductive mantle plume, Geophys. Res. Lett., doi:10.1029/2011GL047346, in press. 2011.


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