Mt. Saint Helens: Supervolcano?

Mt. Saint Helens in Washington state, USA

I’m back from my sojourn to New England and its time to play catch up. First things first!

There has been a lot of chatter in my inbox and on the comments here at Eruptions about the study/press release from Graham Hill’s research group talking about the potential for a supervolcano forming at Mt. Saint Helens. This study (presented at the AGU Spring Meeting) was based on a magnetotelluric study of the area around (and below) Saint Helens. For those of you unfamiliar with magnetotellurics, it uses instruments that measure the magnetism and electrical conductivity of the earth to infer the composition of the crust. This is possible because different materials in different physical states have different magnetic properties and/or electrical conductivity. So, this study took magnetic field readings near the modern Saint Helens and interpreted it to try to determine the composition and state of the crust below the volcano. The authors of the paper write that the patterns of electrical conductivity under Saint Helens suggest a large volume of melt underneath the volcano, thus it has the potential to form a supervolcano.

And that is where things might have gotten a little carried away.

My first reactions to the study:

  • As some of the press surrounding this has suggested, other geologists (such as Gary Egbert at OSU who is quoted in the New Scientist article linked above) has expressed skepticism that we know what the magnetic data is actually saying. The signal of “melt” might also be fluids that are not molten magma (i.e., hydrothermal fluids, meteoric water, dissolved gases). This signal does not really differentiation a cohesive body of melt vs. an area of crust that might be partially molten but not connected. Remember, the two keys to forming a large eruption: eruptibility and trigger. You might have a lot of melt in the crust, but if it is not cohesive (thanks to high porosity), then the chances of a large eruption is not high. You also need something to trigger an eruption by extracting eruptible magma from the magmatic source in the crust (most if not all “supervolcanic” eruptions have a large magmatic system in continental crust*) Without these criteria, trying to argue that the presence of a lot of melt in the crust means “supervolcano” is not well-founded.
  • Another point: the Cascade Range is not exactly a hotbed for “supervolcanic” eruptions. Some volcanic arcs seem to have more large volcanic eruptions than others – i.e., the Central Andes. Why this might be is unclear, but it likely has to do with the thickness of the crust (70 km in parts of the Chilean Andes), the composition of the crust (silicic) and the flux from the mantle (higher rates of subduction). The Cascades all seem to have factors that might not promote large eruptions as much of the Cascades sit on thin (30-40 km), more mafic crust with slower subduction of Juan de Fuca plate under North America. Although we don’t fully understand the source of “supervolcanic” eruptions, on the whole, the Cascades don’t seem to be the prototypical location for them. Off the top of my head, there is only one eruption in the Cascades that could be considered very large, that being the ~5700 B.C. eruption of Mt. Mazama in Oregon that created Crater Lake. This eruption produced ~50 km3 of volcanic ejecta, which is small compared to “supervolcanic” eruptions that are considered to be in the hundreds to thousands of cubic kilometers, but an order of magnitude larger than anything in the Cascades in postglacial time.
  • Mt. Saint Helens is not even the most likely volcano in the Cascades to produce a “supervolcanic” eruption. It has been very active over the last 10,000 years, but most tend to be small, bleeding out material frequently over this period. Although it is not the be-all-and-end-all, repose time between eruption scales with the size of the eruption, so the frequent eruptions of Saint Helens suggests that a large eruption is not likely. If any of the modern Cascade volcanoes are candidates for a large eruption, I might point towards Rainier, Mazama, Shasta or Glacier Peak.
  • All this being said, am I saying that there is no chance of a “supervolcanic” eruption at Mt. Saint Helens? No. As with most everything in geology, there is a non-zero probability of a large eruption from the volcano. However, I would venture to guess that the probability is very small compared to other volcanoes around the world. If anything, this study shows the difficulty in determining the state of affairs under Saint Helens. It appears that the system is fed from a zone of partial melt in the lower crust that gets fed through a narrow conduit. The proportion of melt in the zone and the exact nature of the material (magma, fluid, or a combination) is unclear. The imaging of this zone under Saint Helens is a great addition to our understanding of one of the most active magmatic systems in North America. However, trying to connect this to “supervolcanoes” definitely seems like pandering to the Discovery Channel-style pop science (and admittedly, this “controversy” seems to be more a product of the media than the researchers if you look at the original abstract).

    * Note: this would not include flood basalts as a “supervolcano” although most flood basalt provinces dwarf so-called “supervolcanic” eruptions.

    {Hat tip to Eruptions readers Thomas Donlon, Bob Somerville and Brian for the links to this article.}


  1. #1 Ken
    June 14, 2009

    The New Scientist article seemed to indicate the possibility of Mt. St. Helens being a super volcano based on the melt chamber apparently being connected to the chambers of the other nearby volcanos.

    I haven’t heard anyone state yet that this is simply the result of the long line of subduction of the pacific ocean plate under north america. This does not make for one large super volcano system like Yellowstone.

    How many super volcanoes are there that do not have a hot spot associated with them?

    The New Scientist article was nothing more than media hype and fear mongering … modern journalism. yay.

    I’ll be passing on New Scientist the next time I’m at the magazine rack.

  2. #2 mjkbk
    June 15, 2009

    Erik, the conductive anomaly under Rainier, St. Helens, and Adams–is that the Southern Washington Cascades Conductor? That one has fascinated me since I first heard of it 20 years ago. But even if it DOES turn out to be partially molten material, it doesn’t follow that supervolcano eruption is the automatic result. Can’t it just be the super-sized source for a million years of voluminous eruptive activity in the immediate region?

    [Why is it that members of the media consider it perfectly ethical to scare people nearly to death just to increase readership/viewership? Reminds me of another item getting news coverage this weekend: 1% of computer models indicate a collision between earth and an inner planet over the next few billion years. News media headlines? Along the lines of "WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE! Earth to be destroyed!" Disgusting.]

  3. #3 Lockwood
    June 15, 2009

    My understanding is that the Three Sisters complex is seen as a more likely analogue for Mazama than Rainier, or other single-cone large composite volcanoes… and I agree, even Mazama doesn’t really qualify for so-called “supervolcano” status. There’s a substantial record of ash flows in central to eastern Oregon during the mid-Cenezoic which might qualify (eg, the Rattlesnake tuff), but these seem to have tuckered out (thankfully), and are distinct from Cascades volcanism.

    And I agree with Ken… most science “journalism” these days seems to be reporting by press release. Even to a knowledgeable enthusiast (as opposed to a PhD), the hype and errors are so glaring that I can’t tolerate most of it.

  4. #4 okey
    June 15, 2009

    But even if it DOES turn out to be partially molten material, it doesn’t follow that supervolcano eruption is the automatic result. Can’t it just be the super-sized source for a million years of voluminous eruptive activity in the immediate region?

  5. #5 gg
    June 16, 2009

    So I’ll take it with a grain of salt on April 1, 2010 if I read here about a super volcano at MSH….

  6. #6 Ian
    June 16, 2009

    “For those of you unfamiliar with magnetotellurics…” – which is pretty much all of us except for you geology types!

    I’ve advocated before (and I’m doing it again here!), for the denizens of sci-blogs to create glossaries for their various disciplines. You geologists could put together one containing these terms and simply reference the glossary as you write. Other disciplines could do the same for their professional interest area.

    It would help us non-professional types (and even professionals of other disciplines), and it would help you, too. Every time you use a term you needn’t ever define it again, simply link to the glossary. A good glossary would also serve as an educational tool.

    How come you sci-bloggers aren’t doing this?

    Having said that, thanks for the info on Mt St. Helen’s!

  7. #7 BAllanJ
    June 16, 2009

    I would agree with you, Ian, but I run Firefox as my browser with the add on. Any word I don’t know I can right click on and I get another tab in my browser with definitions or wiki articles on the word or name chosen.

    Re the OP… another NewScientist hype article? yawn. I liked the geology of the post, though.

  8. #8 Tucker
    June 18, 2009

    First of all, let’s use the term ‘caldera’ and get away from using the media-hyped term ‘supervolcano’, made famous by Hollywood. We are big boys and girls, and can use correct scientific terminology.
    In addition to ‘Mount Mazama’ [Crater Lake caldera], which Erik mentioned, there are two other recognized Pleistocene calderas in the Cascades. Kulshan caldera is 1.15 million years old, and is just northeast of the active cone of Mount Baker. This caldera erupted and collapsed under the Cordilleran ice sheet. The other is the source of the 600,000 year-old Rockland ash, and is buried by younger volcanics of Lassen Peak and its neighbors.
    There are several older calderas in the Cascades that have been recognized so far. The Hannegan caldera is only 3.7 million years old, and is northeast of Kulshan. I suspect there is at least one and probably two others in that part of the arc in the US, and there is at least one a little further north in Canada. Other, even older, calderas are in the area of Mount Rainier.
    ‘Lockwood’ was correct, in my view- the Three Sisters area has the highest concentration of rhyolite lavas- these are erupted from the type of magma that often give rise to calderas. Cascade calderas tend to be small; Crater Lake caldera is typical. They are not necessarily associated existing volcanoes, either. There is no geologic evidence that there was precursory volcanism associated with Kulshan, for example.

  9. #9 maddyson
    November 12, 2009

    omg you need bigger writing!

  10. #10 akiko
    November 22, 2009

    Thank you Tucker.

  11. #11 Stopping Smoking
    October 14, 2010

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  12. #12 Bert
    November 13, 2010

    Could someone comment on the circular landforms between Crater Lake and Newberry Crater in central Oregon? Two are clearly visible on google earth and are about 20-30 miles in diameter.

  13. #13 okey oyna
    December 5, 2010

    I would agree with you, Ian, but I run Firefox as my browser with the add on. Any word I don’t know I

  14. #14 Nederlandse kust
    December 12, 2010

    I’m going crazy over here. I just had a discussion about this same subject with my brother and he wouldn’t believe me. With your website I can prove him I’m wright and he’s wrong! Thanx!

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