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Leave No Stone Unturned: Scientists Use Electromagnetic Technology to Discover What Lies Beneath Yellowstone

Nov 17, 2016 04:49 AM EST

The mystery of the Yellowstone Supervolcano is on the road to being solved. Scientists are hard at work to reveal the secrets of the vast subterranean systems that fuel the famous Old Faithful geyser, and other hydrothermal vents at Wyoming's Yellowstone National Park. Though a "super-eruption" hasn't occurred in 13,800 years, mapping out the area will allow scientists to better predict possible natural disasters. The last 'super-eruption' that took place resulted in the largest crater on earth.

"This is really kind of a last frontier if you will, in Yellowstone, of being able to look at a large part that's underground that people have not looked at," Carol Finn from the US Geological Survey, shared with the media. "There's just a lot we don't know, and this survey is really exciting because it's going to be the first view of a large portion of the groundwater system, of the water underground that feeds all of these thermal features."

Though most people believe the Yellowstone Supervolcano rises up out of the ground, it's actually a giant volcano that collapsed in on itself to form caldera, vast cauldron-like depressions that form when a volcano spews so much magma during an eruption. With the chamber empty, the whole thing collapsed like a massive sinkhole and left behind a massive crater. 

The new mapping project started with a helicopter electromagnetic and magnetic survey that can sense even the tiniest voltages sparking underground. The helicopter is fitted with a giant hoop-shaped electromagnetic system, which it suspends over the Yellowstone grounds by flying around 60 meters above the surface. The equipment could detect subterranean electrical activity from above the surface as well as the shapes and behavior of things like geysers, hot springs, mud pots, steam vents, and hydrothermal explosion craters to depths of up to 500 meters. It will also be able to detect where and how hot water flows beneath the surface.

Given the possibility of future major disasters, a study of this kind is vital to give scientists sufficient warning. The US Geological Survey, the University of Wyoming, and the Aarhus University in Denmark are in charge of the mapping survey. The survey is expected to last up to four weeks so as to inform future ground-based surveys around the volcanic hotspot.

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