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

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

Yellowstone Volcano

The Yellowstone Caldera, also called the Yellowstone Supervolcano, is a volcanic caldera and supervolcano located 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 new seismic tomography of the magma deposits beneath the 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 the Yellowstone volcano. Maguire used a technique called seismic tomography, which uses ground vibrations known as seismic waves to create a 3D picture of what’s happening below the Earth’s surface. Using this method, Maguire was able to create an image of the magma chamber’s framework and show 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, in fact, twice as much magma in Yellowstone’s magmatic system.

“I was looking for people who are experts in a particular type of computer-based seismic tomography called waveform tomography,” says Maguire, now an assistant professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). “Min Chen was really a world expert on this.”

Min Chen was an assistant professor at MSU in the Department of Computational Mathematics, Science and Engineering and the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences of the College of Natural Science. Using 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 sharpened those images and revealed more information about the amount of molten magma beneath Yellowstone’s volcano.

“We saw no increase in the amount of magma,” Maguire said. “We just saw a clearer picture of what was already there.”

My Chen

My Chen. Credit: MSU

Previous images showed that Yellowstone’s volcano had a low concentration of magma — just 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, in fact, twice as much magma in Yellowstone’s magmatic system.

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

Unfortunately, Chen never got to see the final results. Her unexpected death in 2021 continues to send shockwaves through the Earth science community, which mourns the loss of her passion and expertise.

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

Her meetings were a place where gifted students, postgraduate candidates, or just anyone interested were welcome. Chen invited prospective graduate students and seasoned seismologists from around the world to join her virtual conversations.

Chen cared deeply about the well-being and careers of her students. She nurtured an inclusive and multidisciplinary environment in which she encouraged her students and postgraduate candidates to become versatile scientists and build long-lasting collaborations. She even held virtual seminars on life outside of academia to help students nurture their careers and hobbies. Chen led by example: she was an avid soccer player and knew how to dance the tango.

Diversity in science was another area Chen felt strongly about. She advocated and defended research opportunities for women and underrepresented groups. To honor Chen, her colleagues created one memorial community in her name to support graduate students in increasing diversity in computational and earth sciences. In another 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 as a National Science Foundation Early CAREER Faculty Award receiver in 2020 to conduct detailed seismic imaging of North America to study Earth’s solid outer shell.

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

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


“Magma Accumulation at Depths of Past Rhyolite Storage Under 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 recognized, but it cannot erupt” by Kari M. Cooper, December 1, 2012, Science.
DOI: 10.1126/science.ade8435

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