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Battle of the giants: How Yellowstone fits into a world of moving mountains

Motion of a volcano resulting from pressure changes within its plumbing system is called deformation, and we can measure it with high-precision positioning instruments on the ground, such as GPS, and also from radar satellites.

Roman marketplace in Pozzuoli, Italy records deformation of Campi Flegrei caldera
Serapeum, a Roman Marketplace in Pozzuoli, Italy, records deformation of Campi Flegrei caldera over two millennia. It was built above sea level about 2000 years ago, but mollusk borings on the large marble columns indicate that it subsided by 7 meters (23 feet) below sea level before being uplifted above sea level once more in the past several hundred years.  (Credit: Emily Montgomery-Brown, USGS. Public domain.)

Yellowstone Caldera Chronicles is a weekly column written by scientists and collaborators of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory. This week's contribution is from Beth Bartel, from the non-profit UNAVCO consortium in Boulder, CO.

We may think of mountains as immobile, but they're not. The reason mountains exist is because Earth's surface is in constant motion, with colliding tectonic plates raising the Himalaya, Andes, and North America's coastal ranges, and magma surfacing at or near these moving plate boundaries building up volcanoes. The surfaces of volcanoes also are moved by the magma and hydrothermal plumbing systems that feed them. Sometimes, these motions are small, and sometimes they are really really big!

Motion of a volcano resulting from pressure changes within its plumbing system is called deformation, and we can measure it with high-precision positioning instruments on the ground, such as GPS, and also from radar satellites (more on that next week!). Sometimes, motions are so large we can see them with our eyes. In the spring of 1980, a bulge on the north flank of Mount St. Helens was growing by more than a meter (about three feet) per day, as magma pushed up into the mountain. While the exact magnitude of the motion was measured with precise ranging instruments, the growing bulge was clearly visible to the naked eye. Mount St. Helens erupted on May 18, 1980, beginning with the collapse of that bulge.

GPS data plots from station NRWY in Yellowstone
GPS time series from station NRWY, near Norris Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park. The three plots show how the station is moving in a north-south direction (top), east-west direction (middle), and up-down direction (bottom). The positions are relative to the North American plate, so plate motion is effectively removed, and changes in position are due to dynamic processes, like faulting and subsurface fluid movement, occurring in the Yellowstone region. Image downloaded from UNAVCO station NRWY webpage. (Credit: Beth Bartel, UNAVCO. Public domain.)

Rapid ground motion at volcanoes has been observed in many other places as well. At Rabaul caldera, in Papua New Guinea, motion preceding an eruption in 1994 was so rapid that a reef rose out of the water quickly enough to strand fish. In 1927, uplift of the coast of Fernandina volcano, in the Galápagos, occurred so fast that a fishing boat became stranded above water while laying at anchor!

Most of the time, however, we need precise instrumentation to measure the deformation of volcanoes, like the GPS, tilt, and strainmeter stations that measure the motions of Yellowstone. The magnitudes of these motions vary as much as the volcanoes themselves. Some volcanoes barely move, even when erupting; other volcanoes move a lot before, during, and after eruptions. Yellowstone tends to move up and down and up and down--without an eruption. Scientists have recognized that this up-and-down behavior is normal for many large calderas, all around the world.

So how much does Yellowstone move, and how does it compare to these other calderas? Let's look just in terms of how much the volcano has inflated, or moved up. The largest uplift episode measured at Yellowstone during the past few decades averaged about 5 cm (2 in) per year, over 2005-2009. By contrast, the largest uplift episode measured halfway around the world at Campi Flegrei, Italy, averaged about 60 cm (25 in) per year over 1982-1984.

What's more, the record at Campi Flegrei goes back far longer than at Yellowstone--back to Roman times! The caldera is partially submerged beneath the Tyrrhenian Sea, which means the port town of Pozzuoli is well within the caldera. Marble columns of a 2000-year-old marketplace give us a remarkable record of Campi Flegrei's uplift and subsidence. The columns are pocked with holes from burrowing sea mollusks, which means the marketplace was built when the land was above sea level, subsided by about 7 meters (23 feet) and was inundated by seawater, and then rose out of the water again.

So what is the source of these changes, at Campi Flegrei, Yellowstone, and elsewhere? Deformation can be caused by new intrusions of magma, cooling or release of fluids or gases from magma, changes in the volcano's hydrothermal system, and other factors. Geodesy, the study of these motions, is only one tool in the volcanologists' toolkit. Combining geodesy with other measurements, like seismicity and changes in the composition of gases, rocks, and water, can go a long way toward understanding how any particular volcanic system behaves, and why.

Knowing the history of how a volcano has deformed is also important for defining "normal" for that volcano, since each volcano is different in terms of the activity it experiences. At Yellowstone and other calderas, changes in deformation patterns from uplift to subsidence and back again are a common occurrence. By studying these changes, we hope to learn more about the subsurface conditions that are causing the ground to move, and also to monitor for changes that are not normal. Recognizing the normal from the unusual is key for identifying the potential for future hazardous volcanic activity!

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