Volcanoes are fascinating, powerful, and somewhat mysterious. Researchers at University of California at Berkeley have been working on shedding a little light on the subject, by using supercomputers and seismic waves to build a 3D map of the Earth’s interior. They did it, in part, to explain how volcanic islands, like Hawaii, are formed. But their research also provides a deeper understanding of the nature of volcanic activity deep under the Earth’s surface.
This development stems from a supercomputer simulation at the Department of Energy’s National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC) at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. There, researchers simulated the rise of plumes of hot rock as it breaks through the Earth’s mantle, just above the iron core. Volcanic activity like this takes millions of years to push through the 1,800 miles from the mantle to the surface of the Earth.
The new, high-resolution map of the mantle does something previous models have been unable to do; it connects the plumes with volcanic hotspots and suggests that the plumes are up to five times wider than geophysicists previously thought. The simulation also reveals that the volcanic plumes are at least 400 degrees Celsius hotter than the surrounding rock.
Although the new map is a giant step forward in understanding volcanic activity on Earth, it’s not comprehensive. It doesn’t, for example, show a linkage with the Yellowstone National Park caldera. Researchers believe that may simply be because the plumes were too thin to be detected by the model, and they hope to be able to “zoom in” with future models to look more closely at volcanic plumes of interest.
Images via Scott French/UC Berkeley