Deadly Supervolcanoes Form Super Quick

By Amir Khan on May 31, 2012 12:11 PM EDT

Supervolcano
This three-dimensional perspective view of Long Valley, Calif., was created from data taken by the Spaceborne Imaging Radar-C/X-band Synthetic Aperture Radar on board the space shuttle Endeavour. Credit: NASA/JPL (Photo: NASA)

Supervolanoes -- large volcanoes with enough power to wipeout an entire civilization -- sounds like a plot out of a sci-fi movie, but they're very real and according to a new study published Wednesday in the journal PLoS One, form and erupt in a much shorter time period than previously thought.

Geologists thought that these super eruptions, up to 100 times larger than regular volcanoes, are caused by superheated magma that simmers for over 100,000 to 200,000 years before erupting. But the latest study shows that's not the case.

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"Our study suggests that when these exceptionally large magma pools form, they are ephemeral and cannot exist very long without erupting," Guilherme Gualda, study author and an assistant professor of earth and environmental sciences at Vanderbilt University, said in a statement.

Researchers travelled to Bishop Tuff, a plateau in California that holds the remains of a supervolcano that erupted 760,000 years ago. They used a dating technique that looks at the rate of quartz formation, as opposed to traditional dating that looks at the decay of several elements, to determine the lifespan of the volcano. They found that the magma pool likely formed in as little as 500 and 3,000 years -- much faster than previously thought.

"The fact that the process of magma body formation occurs in historical time, instead of geological time, completely changes the nature of the problem," Gualda told BBC News.

The researchers concluded that instead of assuming that supervolcanoes are no risk, they said geologists need to monitor areas that could develop one, such as Yellowstone National Park. By regularly monitoring those areas, geologists could have some warning of an impending eruption.

However, a 2005 report by the Geological Society of London found that even with awareness of a coming eruption, little could be done.

"Even science fiction cannot produce a credible mechanism for averting a super-eruption. We can, however, work to better understand the mechanisms involved in super-eruptions, with the goal of being able to predict them ahead of time and provide a warning for society," the report found. "Preparedness is the key to mitigation of the disastrous effects of a super-eruption."

The most recent super-eruption occurred at Taupo in New Zealand, about 26,000 years ago; the most dramatic to occur while humans walked the Earth happened 74,000 years ago, in Indonesia, when an eruption at Mount Toba rained ash all over South Asia and filled the atmosphere with so great a load of ash and small particles that it altered global weather for as long as a decade, according to MSNBC.

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