Scientists at the University of Illinois have constructed a new theory on how the hotspot beneath Yellowstone National Park‘s supervolcano gets its heat. “A robust result from these models is that the heat source behind the extensive inland volcanism actually originated from the shallow oceanic mantle to the west of the Pacific Northwest coast,” said Lijun Liu, lead researcher and geology professor. Liu’s team monitored seismic waves that reverberate after an earthquake to create an X-ray-like map of subterranean activity. Using the intense processing power of a supercomputer to analyze the data, the team constructed models of various geologic outcomes and determined that the most likely explanation is that Yellowstone’s heat originates from the tectonic Pacific Coast.
The conclusion drawn by the research team at the University of Illinois contradicts alternative, previously accepted theories on the roots of Yellowstone’s heat. “This directly challenges the traditional view that most of the heat came from the plume below Yellowstone,” said Liu. Known as mantle plume theory, the broadly accepted explanation for Yellowstone’s heat contends that much volcanic activity in North America has been caused by the slow stretching of the continent. This movement then results in a thinner, more easily breakable crust in certain regions, such as Yellowstone, that are far from areas of traditional tectonic-volcanic activity. In this scenario, Yellowstone’s shallow magma reservoir is fed by a much deeper mantle plume, from which heat is able to escape due to the thinner crust.
Liu believes that the plume below Yellowstone matters less than the westward movement of the hot Pacific mantle. Although his theory may be incomplete, so too is the conventional mantle plume theory. “If the vast body of mantle plume research has done nothing else, it has revealed the difficulties inherent in trying to plumb the depths of Earth’s interior,” wrote Sarah Platt in Earth Magazine. “Reaching to a depth of 1,800 miles, the mantle cannot be sampled by fieldwork; it must be remotely sensed and modeled.” This lack of certainty has provoked a healthy debate that may lead to unexpected places. “Controversy in science is a good thing,” said Michael Poland, the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory scientist-in-charge, according to Independent Record. “That’s when we learn.”
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