Scientists developed a new computer model that undermines the popular theory about the origins of the Yellowstone Supervolcano. The widespread belief is that the supervolcano was formed from a vertical formation of hot rocks. This column is believed to extend from the top of the planet's core.

The enormous magmatic system is sort of the plumbing system beneath the Earth's surface. Researchers from the University of Illinois used the new data about the magmatic system and the supervolcano's past to create an improved computer model that debunks popular theories about its origins.

The University's geology professor Lijun Liu said their new computer model presents the complete history of the supervolcano's activities. The research was published in the Geophysical Research Letters journal on Jan. 20.

"The majority of previous studies have relied on conceptual, idealized models, which are not physically and geologically accurate," said Liu. The team considered more dynamic processes that enabled their computer model to be more realistic and complex than past ones.

The team used the National Center for Supercomputing Applications' Blue Waters supercomputer at the University. They replicated not only the surface's plate tectonic history but also the interior's geophysical image. The machine they used is one of the world's fastest supercomputers and the study is the first one to use such machinery to replicate Yellowstone's complex geophysical data.

While the computer model wasn't intended to predict the actual formation of the supervolcano, the model measured the efficiency of past formation theories based on the new data they have on hand. When the popular mantle plume theory was tested, the computer model suggests that the vertical column of hot rocks wasn't theoretically possible. Data on the ancient tectonic plates suggested that a plume would have been blocked from rising.

Its unknown origin is a big driver as to why supervolcanoes remain risky and continue to drive public concern. Liu added that the continuous improvement of the supervolcano formation model can help predict Yellowstone's future behaviors.

 "This research indicates that we need a multidisciplinary approach to understand complicated natural processes like Yellowstone," added Liu.

Photo: Jeff Gunn | Flickr

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