Home News What is hiding under the Yellowstone volcano? Twice what magma thinks

What is hiding under the Yellowstone volcano? Twice what magma thinks

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Yellowstone caldera, sometimes referred to as 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 kilometres).

The scholar’s expertise, energy and compassion leave a legacy.

The late Michigan State University researcher Min Chen contributed new seismic tomography of magma deposits under 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 Yellowstone volcano. Maguire used a technique called seismic tomography, which uses ground vibrations called seismic waves to create a 3-D picture of what’s going on beneath the Earth’s surface. Using this method, Maguire was able to create an image of the magma chamber window showing where the magma was. But these are not entirely clear pictures.

With these new images and key contributions from Chen, Maguire and his team were able to see twice the amount of magma present in the Yellowstone magma system.

“I was looking for people with expertise in a specific type of computational-based 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-class expert in this field.”

Min Chen was an assistant professor at MSU in the Department of Computational Mathematics, Science, and Engineering and in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences in the College of Natural Sciences. Using the power of supercomputers, Chen developed the method applied to Maguire’s images to more accurately model how seismic waves propagate through the Earth. Chen’s ingenuity and skill led him to focus on these images, revealing more information about the amount of magma molten 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 really there.”

Chen’s hand. Credit: Michigan State University

Previous images showed that the Yellowstone volcano has a low concentration of magma – just 10% – surrounded by a strong crystalline framework. With these new images and key contributions from Chen, Maguire and his team were able to see twice the amount of magma present in the Yellowstone magma system.

“To be clear, the new discovery does not indicate the possibility of a volcano erupting in the future,” Maguire said. “Any signs of a change in the system will be picked up by the network of geophysical instruments that constantly monitor Yellowstone.”

Unfortunately, Chen couldn’t see the final results. His unexpected death in 2021 continues to send shockwaves throughout the geosciences community, who are grieving the loss of his passion and expertise.

“Computational seismology is still relatively new at MSU,” said Songqiao “Shawn” Wei, a gifted assistant professor of earth sciences in MSU’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, who was a colleague of Chen. “As soon as the epidemic came, Chen made his research lectures and discussions available on Zoom where researchers and students from all over the world could participate. That’s how many seismologists around the world got to know MSU.”

Its meetings were a welcome place for talented undergraduates, postdoctoral candidates, or anyone interested. Chen invited potential graduate students and senior seismologists from around the world to join his virtual calls.

Chen cared deeply for his students’ welfare and jobs. It has fostered a holistic, interdisciplinary environment in which it encourages its students and postdoctoral candidates to become knowledgeable scholars and establish long-term collaborations. He even hosted virtual seminars on life outside of academia to help students advance their careers and hobbies. Chen gave an example: She was an avid soccer player and knew how to dance.

Diversity in the sciences was another area that Chen held dear. She has advocated for research opportunities for women and underrepresented groups. To honor Chen, her classmates established a memorial scholarship in her name to provide support for graduate students to increase diversity in computer science and earth sciences. In another tribute to his life and love of gardening, his classmates also planted a memorial tree in the courtyard of the Engineering Building on the MSU campus.

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

“She had a lot of energy,” said Maguire. “I focused on making sure people were successful when it was incredibly successful.”

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


“Magma Accretion Deep in the Former Rhyolite Vault Beneath the Yellowstone Caldera” By Ross Maguire, Brandon Schmandt, Jiaki Li, Chengxin Jiang, Juliang Li, Justin Wilgus, Min Chen, 1 Dec. 2012, Available here. Sciences.
DOI: 10.1126/science.ade0347

“What is hiding under Yellowstone?” There’s More Magma Than Previously Thought, But It Might Not Be Eruptable, By Carrie M Cooper, 2012 Dec 1, Available here. Sciences.
DOI: 10.1126/science.ade8435


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