Should it ever erupt, a supervolcano beneath Yellowstone National Park could blanket North America in an ash cloud, wipe out communications, and alter the climate.
Researchers previously thought such an eruption would be centuries or millennia in the making. But new research out of Arizona State University is drawing that timeline into question.
An analysis of fossilized ash – left over from the last supereruption at Yellowstone 630,000 years ago – reveals the process could take only decades. Early evidence in the research was presented at an August volcanology conference in Portland, Oregon, the New York Times reports.
“We expected that there might be processes happening over thousands of years preceding the eruption,” geologist Christy Till told the Times.
Till is a dissertation adviser to the researcher, Hannah Shamloo, who examined tiny crystals left over from underground magma at Yellowstone. Shamloo found the first sign of the last supereruption was a spike in temperature that coincided with the movement of new magma into the reservoir beneath the supervolcano.
The crystals reveal a supereruption followed much quicker than scientists previously thought — perhaps within decades, or what Popular Mechanics calls a “geologic snap of the finger.”
“It’s shocking how little time is required to take a volcanic system from being quiet and sitting there to the edge of an eruption,” Shamloo told the Times.
She cautioned that more research is needed before any kind of timeline could be identified.
Shamloo told Earth & Space Science News in January that the ultimate goal of her research is to create warning systems before supereruptions.
“If something like this happened today, it would be catastrophic,” Shamloo told the journal. “We want to understand what triggers these eruptions, so we can set up warning systems. That’s the big-picture goal.”
Meanwhile, the lead scientist at the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory tells National Geographic there’s no sign of any “magmatic event” at this time.
KTLA’s Melissa Pamer contributed to this article.
A version of this article originally appeared on Newser: Yellowstone’s Supervolcano Could Erupt in a ‘Geologic Snap’
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