What's Hiding Under the Yellowstone Volcano?  Twice as much magma as thought

What’s Hiding Under the Yellowstone Volcano? Twice as much magma as thought

Yellowstone Volcano

The Yellowstone Caldera, sometimes called the Yellowstone Supervolcano, is a volcanic caldera and supervolcano in Yellowstone National Park in the western United States. The caldera measures 43 by 28 miles (70 by 45 kilometers).

The expertise, energy and empathy of researchers leave a legacy.

Late MSU researcher Min Chen contributed new seismic tomography of magma deposits beneath the 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 called seismic waves to create a 3D image of what’s happening below the Earth’s surface. Using this method, Maguire was able to create an image of the magma chamber frame showing where the magma was. But these are not crystal clear images.

Thanks to these new images, with key contributions from Chen, Maguire and his team were able to see that, in fact, there is twice as much magma in the Yellowstone magma system.

“I was looking for people with expertise in a particular type of computerized 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 on this.”

Min Chen was an assistant professor at MSU in the Department of Mathematics, Computational Science and Engineering and the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences in the College of Natural Sciences. Using the power of supercomputing, Chen developed the method applied to Maguire images to more accurately model how seismic waves propagate through the Earth. Chen’s creativity and skill have sharpened these images, revealing more information about the amount of molten magma beneath the Yellowstone volcano.

“We haven’t seen an increase in the amount of magma,” Maguire said. “We just saw a clearer picture of what was already 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 strong crystalline framework. Thanks to these new images, with key contributions from Chen, Maguire and his team were able to see that, in fact, there is twice as much magma in the Yellowstone magma system.

“To be clear, the new discovery does not indicate that a future eruption is likely to occur,” Maguire said. “Any signs of change in the system would be captured by the network of geophysical instruments that continuously monitors Yellowstone.”

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

“Computational seismology is still relatively new at MSU,” said Songqiao “Shawn” Wei, an endowed assistant professor of geological sciences in MSU’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, who was a colleague of Chen. “Once the pandemic hit, Chen made his lectures and research discussions available on Zoom where researchers and students around the world could participate. This is how many seismologists around the world discovered MSU.

Its meetings were a place where gifted undergraduates, postdoctoral candidates, or simply anyone interested were welcome. Chen invited prospective graduate students as well as senior seismologists from around the world to join his virtual calls.

Chen cared deeply about the welfare and careers of his students. She fostered an inclusive and multidisciplinary environment in which she encouraged her students and postdocs to become well-rounded scientists and to build long-term collaborations. She even hosted virtual seminars on life outside of academia to help students develop their careers and hobbies. Chen set an example: She was an avid soccer player and knew how to tango.

Scientific diversity was another area that Chen was very fond of. She has championed and championed research opportunities for women and underrepresented groups. To honor Chen, his colleagues created a memorial scholarship in his name to provide support for graduate students to increase diversity in computer and earth sciences. In another tribute to his life and love of gardening, Chen’s colleagues also planted a memorial tree in the plaza of the Engineering Building on the MSU campus.

Chen was truly a leader in her field and was honored as the recipient of the 2020 National Science Foundation Early Career Faculty Award for performing detailed seismic imaging of North America to study Earth’s solid outer shell.

“She had so much energy,” Maguire said. “She focused on making sure people could succeed when she was incredibly successful.”

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


“Magma Accumulation at the Depths of Prior Rhyolite Storage 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 under Yellowstone?” There is more magma than previously recognized, but it may not be eruptible” by Kari M. Cooper, December 1, 2012, Science.
DOI: 10.1126/science.ade8435

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