What lies beneath Yellowstone’s volcano? Twice as much magma as expected

What lies beneath Yellowstone's volcano?  Twice as much magma as expected
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Yellowstone Volcano

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 kilometers).

The researcher’s expertise, energy and empathy leave a legacy.

The late MSU researcher Min Chen contributed to a new seismic tomography of the magma deposits beneath the Yellowstone volcano.

When Ross Maguire was a postdoctoral fellow 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 known as seismic waves to create a 3D image of what’s happening beneath the earth’s surface. Using this method, Maguire was able to create an image of the magma chamber framework that shows where the magma was located. But these are not crystal clear images.

As a result of these new images, with key contributions from Chen, Maguire and his team were able to see that there is actually twice as much magma in Yellowstone’s magmatic system.

“I was looking for people who are experts in a specific type of computational seismic tomography called waveform tomography,” said Maguire, now an assistant professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). “Min Chen was truly a world 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 Science. Harnessing the power of supercomputing, Chen developed the method applied to Maguire’s images to more accurately model how seismic waves propagate through the Earth. Chen’s creativity and skill brought these images into sharper focus, revealing more information about the amount of molten magma beneath Yellowstone’s volcano.

“We didn’t see any 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 Yellowstone’s volcano had a low concentration of magma – only 10% – surrounded by a solid crystalline framework. As a result of these new images, with key contributions from Chen, Maguire and his team were able to see that there is actually twice as much magma in Yellowstone’s magmatic system.

“To be clear, the new discovery does not indicate that a future eruption is likely,” Maguire said. “Any signs of changes to the system would be picked up by the network of geophysical instruments continuously monitoring Yellowstone.”

Unfortunately, Chen never saw the final results. Her unexpected death in 2021 continues to send shockwaves through the geoscientific community, who mourn the loss of their passion and expertise.

“Computational seismology is relatively new at MSU,” said Songqiao “Shawn” Wei, a gifted assistant professor of geological sciences in MSU’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, who was a colleague of Chen’s. “When the pandemic hit, Chen made her lectures and research discussions available on Zoom for researchers and students from around the world to participate. This is how many seismologists around the world got to know the MSU.”

Their meetings were a place where gifted students, postdocs, or just anyone interested were welcome. Chen allowed both graduate students and experienced seismologists from around the world to join her virtual calls.

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

Diversity in science was another area that was very important to Chen. She advocated and championed research opportunities for women and underrepresented groups. To honor Chen, her colleagues created a memorial community on their behalf to support graduate students for the increasing diversity in computer and earth sciences. As a further tribute to her 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 with the National Science Foundation’s Early CAREER Faculty Award recipient in 2020 to conduct detailed seismic imaging of North America to study Earth’s solid outer envelope.

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

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


“Magma Accumulation at Depths of Former Rhyolite Reservoirs Beneath 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 lies beneath Yellowstone? There is more magma than previously thought, but it cannot erupt” by Kari M. Cooper, December 1, 2012 Science.
DOI: 10.1126/science.ade8435

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