What lies beneath the Yellowstone Volcano? Twice as much magma as thought

What lies beneath the Yellowstone Volcano? Twice as much magma as thought

Yellowstone Caldera, sometimes called 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).

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

The late MSU researcher Min Chen contributed new seismic tomography of the igneous deposits beneath 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 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 frame showing 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 twice as much magma actually exists in the Yellowstone magma system.

“I was looking for people who were experts in a particular type of computational-based seismic tomography called wavelet tomography,” said Maguire, now an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). “Ming 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 the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences in the College of Natural Sciences. Using the power of the supercomputer, 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 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 have shown that the Yellowstone volcano has 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 twice as much magma actually exists in 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 will be picked up by the network of geophysical instruments that continuously monitor Yellowstone.”

Unfortunately, Chen never got to see the final results. Her unexpected death in 2021 continues to send shock waves 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 assistant professor of geological sciences in MSU’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, who was Chen’s colleague. “After the pandemic hit, Chen made his lectures and research discussions available on Zoom, where researchers and students from around the world can participate. That’s how many seismologists around the world got to know MSU.”

Her meetings were a place where gifted students, postdocs, or just anyone interested was welcome to attend. Chen has had prospective students as well as experienced seismologists from around the world join her virtual talks.

Chen was very interested in the welfare and careers of his students. She fosters an inclusive and multidisciplinary environment where she encourages her students and postdocs to become well-rounded scholars and build long-term collaborations. She even held virtual workshops on life outside of academia to help students develop their careers and hobbies. Chen gave an example: She was an avid soccer player and knew how to tango.

Diversity in science was another area Chen felt strongly about. She advocated and supported research opportunities for women and underrepresented groups. In Chen’s honor, her colleagues created memorial fellowship on her behalf to provide support to graduate students to increase diversity in computer science and earth sciences. In another tribute to her life and 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 honored with a National Science Foundation Faculty Early CAREER Award recipient in 2020 to perform detailed seismic imaging of North America to study the Earth’s hard 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 some of Chen’s legacy, is published in the journal Science.


“Magma Accumulation at Depth of Former Rhyolite Storage Beneath the Yellowstone Caldera” by Ross Maguire, Brandon Schmand, 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 may not be eruptive” by Carrie M. Cooper, December 1, 2012. Science.
DOI: 10.1126/science.ade8435

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