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NEWS
Gigantic Ancient Oceanic Plate Produced Super-Volcano Eruptions
July 30, 2018

The long-dormant Yellowstone super-volcano in the American West has a different history than previously thought, according to a new study by a Virginia Tech geoscientist.


Location of the Yellowstone's hotspot track. The triangles indicate general locations of the Yellowstone and Snake River Plain age-progressive volcanoes with ages shown in millions of years, plotted on a topography map of the Western United States. Image courtesy of Virginia Tech.

Scientists have long thought that Yellowstone Caldera, part of the Rocky Mountains and located mostly in Wyoming, is powered by heat from the Earth’s core, similar to most volcanoes such as the recently active Kilauea volcano in Hawaii. However, new research published in Nature Geoscience by Ying Zhou, an associate professor with the Virginia Tech College of Science’s Department of Geosciences, shows a different past.

“In this research, there was no evidence of heat coming directly up from the Earth’s core to power the surface volcano at Yellowstone,” Prof. Zhou said. “Instead, the underground images we captured suggest that Yellowstone volcanoes were produced by a gigantic ancient oceanic plate that dove under the Western United States about 30 million years ago. This ancient oceanic plate broke into pieces, resulting in perturbations of unusual rocks in the mantle which led to volcanic eruptions in the past 16 million years.”

The eruptions were very explosive, Prof. Zhou added. A theoretical seismologist, Prof. Zhou created X-ray-like images of the Earth’s deep interior from USArray – part of the Earthscope project funded by the National Science Foundation – and discovered an anomalous underground structure at a depth of about 250 to 400 miles right beneath the line of volcanoes.

According to information, in her study, Prof. Zhou found the new images of the Earth’s deep interior showed that the oceanic Farallon plate, which used to be where the Pacific Ocean is now, wedged itself beneath the present-day Western United States. The ancient oceanic plate was broken into pieces just like the seafloor in the Pacific today. A section of the subducted oceanic plate started tearing off and sinking down to the deep earth.

The sinking section of oceanic plate slowly pushed hot materials upward to form the volcanoes that now make up Yellowstone. Further, the series of volcanoes that make up Yellowstone have been slowly moving, achingly so, ever since. “The process started at the Oregon-Idaho border about 16 million years ago and propagated northwestward, forming a line of volcanoes that are progressively younger as they stretched northwest to present-day Wyoming,” Prof. Zhou added.


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