Probing the underbelly of a supervolcano

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Science  15 May 2015:
Vol. 348, Issue 6236, pp. 758-759
DOI: 10.1126/science.aab1828

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Human civilization remains vulnerable to volcanic eruptions. For example, the moderate eruption of Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland in 2010 was responsible for the total disruption of air traffic in Europe for several days. The largest eruptions known in human history (such as that of Mount Tambora, Indonesia, in 1815) ejected enormous volumes of volcanic material, ranging from 25 to 150 km3, and caused serious worldwide climate changes, leading to huge loss of life even in countries located far from volcanoes. Even greater eruptions that have spewed out more than 1000 km3 of ash and volcanic gases into the atmosphere have occurred in the recent geological past (1). The ash of such supereruptions covered huge areas, polluted the atmosphere, and caused notable climate changes throughout the world with marked effects on the biosphere (2). Evaluating whether such strong volcanic eruptions will occur in the future requires an understanding of the geological processes and physical mechanisms that led to them. Such an understanding can be gained from studies of the volcanic systems known to produce these supereruptions in the near past. On page 773 of this issue, Huang et al. (3) present a new seismic tomography study of the crust and the uppermost mantle beneath the Yellowstone volcanic field that provides insights into the functioning of supervolcanoes.