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New data undermines story of Yellowstone's formation

"Our model covered the entire history of Yellowstone volcanic activities," said geologist Lijun Liu.

By
Brooks Hays
Geology professor Lijun Liu built a computer model to analyze the origins of the Yellowstone supervolcano. Photo by University of Illinois
Geology professor Lijun Liu built a computer model to analyze the origins of the Yellowstone supervolcano. Photo by University of Illinois

URBANA, Ill., Feb. 10 (UPI) -- The origins of the Yellowstone supervolcano remain controversial. The most popular theory is that the supervolcano formed from a mantle plume, a vertical column of hot rocks extending from the top of the earth's core, but a new computer model developed by scientists at the University of Illinois suggests otherwise.

The model's design and predictions are detailed in a new study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

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Part of the problem with explaining the formation of the Yellowstone supervolcano is that researchers still don't know that much about the massive magmatic system, the plumbing beneath the surface. There is now more relevant information on that front, as well as new data on the supervolcano's past.

Researchers used this new data to build a more accurate model, designed to simulate the formation of Yellowstone.

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"Our model covered the entire history of Yellowstone volcanic activities," Lijun Liu, a geology professor at the University of Illinois, explained in a press release.

According to Liu, previous formation models don't account for how geological variables shift over time.

"Our physical model is more sophisticated and realistic than previous studies, because we simultaneously consider many more relevant dynamic processes," Liu said.

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The model isn't designed to predict exactly how Yellowstone formed, but to measure how well certain formation theories mesh with all that scientists now know about Yellowstone's past and present.

According to the new simulations, the mantle plume theory doesn't mesh. The model suggests ancient tectonic plates would have blocked a plume from rising to the surface.

By improving supervolcano formation models, Liu says scientists can better predict how Yellowstone will behave tomorrow.

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