What is under the Yellowstone volcano? Twice as much Magma as thought

What is under the Yellowstone volcano?  Twice as much Magma as thought
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Yellowstone Volcano

Yellowstone Caldera, sometimes referred to as the Yellowstone Supervolcano, is a volcanic caldera and supervolcano in Yellowstone National Park in the western United States. The caldera is between 43 and 28 miles (70 and 45 kilometers) across.

A researcher’s experience, energy and empathy 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 an image of a magma chamber frame that shows where the magma is located. But these are not crystal clear images.

As a result of these new images, with key contributions from Chen, Maguire and his team were able to see that Yellowstone’s magma system actually contains twice as much magma.

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

Min Chen was an assistant professor in the Department of Computational Mathematics, Science and Engineering at MSU and the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences in the College of Natural Sciences. Using the power of a supercomputer, 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 these images into sharper focus, revealing more information about the amount of molten magma beneath the Yellowstone volcano.

“We didn’t see an increase in the amount of magma,” Maguire said. “We just got a clearer picture of what was out 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, with key contributions from Chen, Maguire and his team were able to see that Yellowstone’s magma system actually contains twice as much magma.

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

Unfortunately, Chen never got to see the final results. His unexpected death in 2021 continues to send shockwaves through the earth science community, which mourns the loss of his passion and expertise.

“Computational seismology is still relatively new at MSU,” said Songqiao “Sean” Wei, Professor of Geological Sciences in MSU’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, a colleague of Chen’s. “After the pandemic, Chen presented his lectures and research discussions on Zoom, where researchers and students from all over the world could participate. This is how many seismologists around the world got to know MSU.”

Its meetings were a place where talented undergraduates, PhD candidates, or just anyone interested could attend. Chen’s virtual calls were joined by prospective graduate students and experienced seismologists from around the world.

Chen cared about the welfare and careers of his students. He has fostered an inclusive and multidisciplinary environment where he encourages his students and postdoctoral candidates to become well-rounded scholars and build long-term collaborations. He even held virtual workshops on life outside of academia to help students develop their careers and hobbies. Chen led by example: He 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, his colleagues are one memorial scholarship to support graduate students in his name to increase diversity in computing and earth sciences. In another tribute to his life and love of gardening, Chen’s colleagues also planted a memorial tree on the grounds of the Engineering Building on MSU’s campus.

Chen was truly a leader in his field and was awarded a National Science Foundation Early CAREER Faculty Award. container Conducting detailed seismic imaging of North America in 2020 to study the Earth’s solid outer crust.

“He had a lot of energy,” Maguire said. “He focused on making people succeed while being incredibly successful.”

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


“Magma Accumulation Deep in a Former Rhyolite Reservoir Beneath the Yellowstone Caldera,” by Ross Maguire, Brandon Schmandt, Jiaqi Li, Chengxin Jiang, Guoliang Li, Justin Wilgus, and Min Chen, December 1, 2012, Science.
DOI: 10.1126/science.ade0347

“What’s Beneath Yellowstone? There’s More Magma Than Previously Recognized, But It May Not Be Erupting” By Kari M. Cooper, December 1, 2012, Science.
DOI: 10.1126/science.ade8435

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