What is under the Yellowstone volcano? Twice as much magma as thought

yellow stone volcano

The 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 experience, energy and empathy of researchers leave a legacy.

The late MSU researcher Min Chen contributed to a new seismic tomography of magma deposits beneath 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 vibrations in the ground known as seismic waves to create a 3D image of what is happening below the Earth’s surface. Using this method, Maguire was able to create an image of the magma chamber frame that showed where the magma was located. But these are not sharp images.

As a result of these new images, with key contributions from Chen, Maguire and his team were able to see that twice that amount of magma actually exists within the Yellowstone magma system.

“I was looking for people who were experts in a particular type of seismic computed 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 on this.”

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 supercomputing, Chen developed the Maguire imaging method to more accurately model how seismic waves propagate through the Earth. Chen’s creativity and skill brought those images into better focus, revealing more information about the amount of molten magma beneath the Yellowstone volcano.

“We didn’t see an 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 the Yellowstone 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 twice that amount of magma actually exists within the Yellowstone magma system.

“To be clear, the new discovery does not indicate that a future eruption is likely to occur,” Maguire said. “Any signs of changes in the system would be captured by the network of geophysical instruments that continually monitor Yellowstone.”

Unfortunately, Chen was never able to see the final results. His unexpected death in 2021 continues to shock the earth science community, which mourns the loss of his passion and expertise.

“Computational seismology is still relatively new at MSU,” said Songqiao “Shawn” Wei, associate 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 his research lectures and discussions available on Zoom, where researchers and students from around the world could participate. This is how many seismologists around the world came to know about MSU.”

His meetings were a place where talented college students, postdoctoral candidates, or just anyone interested could attend. Chen had prospective graduate students as well as experienced seismologists from around the world join his virtual calls.

Chen cared deeply about the welfare and careers of his students. She fostered an inclusive, multidisciplinary environment in which she encouraged her students and postdoctoral candidates to become well-rounded scientists and build long-term collaborations. She even hosted webinars on life outside of academia to help students nurture their careers and hobbies. Chen led by example: she was an avid soccer player and she knew how to 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 a memorial scholarship in her name to support graduate students in increasing diversity in earth and computer sciences. In another tribute to her life and her love of gardening, Chen’s colleagues also planted a memorial tree in the Engineering Building plaza on the MSU campus.

Chen was truly a leader in her field and was awarded the 2020 National Science Foundation Early CAREER Faculty Award for performing detailed seismic imaging of North America to study Earth’s solid outer shell.

“He 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 showcases a piece of Chen’s legacy, is published in the journal Sciences.


“Acumulation of Magma in the Depths of Previous Rhyolite Storage Beneath the Yellowstone Caldera” by Ross Maguire, Brandon Schmandt, Jiaqi Li, Chengxin Jiang, Guoliang Li, Justin Wilgus, and Min Chen, December 1, 2012, Sciences.
DOI: 10.1126/science.ade0347

“What is under Yellowstone? There is more magma than previously recognized, but it may not be eruptible” by Kari M. Cooper, December 1, 2012, Sciences.
DOI: 10.1126/science.ade8435

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