Yellowstone volcano: Why USGS scientists face ‘challenge’ over earthquake swarms

The Yellowstone volcano gets its chilling label as a supervolcano due to its ability to inflict devastation on a global level. Pinned between the states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, the volcano is constantly monitored by the USGS (United States Geological Survey) for signs that a supereruption is on its way. One of the ways scientists carry out research inside Yellowstone National Park and the surrounding areas is through analysing the earthquakes that occur in the area.

Seismic activity is recorded in the region, with the majority of tremors being measuring below magnitude 3.5, meaning they are too faint to be felt.

The USGS website reveals: “The Yellowstone region is one of the most seismically active areas in the United States, experiencing around 1,500 to 2,500 located earthquakes per year on average. 

“The majority of these earthquakes are too small to be felt by humans but are detected by a sophisticated network of about 50 seismometers called the Yellowstone Seismic Network (YSN). 

“The University of Utah Seismograph Stations (UUSS) operates YSN, and earthquake data are transferred from Yellowstone to the UUSS in real time using a radio and satellite telemetry system. 

“UUSS scientists analyse the earthquake data and report information on their website.”

However, the USGS also detailed why the cold temperatures of the Yellowstone region mean that sometimes the seismographs freeze.

He added: “It is challenging to keep data flowing during harsh winter months because many of the transmission sites are on tall peaks that experience heavy snowfall and frigid temperatures.

“Seismometers sometimes go down for short periods of time because the solar panels or antennas get covered in snow and ice. 

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“Seismometers that go down during the winter may not be accessible until the spring.”

This could pose a concern to scientists because of the high probability of sparking an earthquake swarm.

These pose a threat as they can trigger a volcanic eruption, though scientists are unsure exactly how.

They believe the volcanic activity possibly occurs in response to a change in the local pressure surrounding the magma reservoir system as a consequence of severe ground shaking caused by the earthquake.

The USGS site states: “Earthquake swarms (earthquakes that cluster in time and space) account for about 50 percent of the total seismicity in Yellowstone and can occur anywhere in the Yellowstone region, but they are most common in the east-west band of seismicity between Hebgen Lake and the Norris Geyser Basin.

“Most swarms are small, containing 10-20 earthquakes, and short, lasting for 1–2 days. 

“However, large swarms that can contain 1,000’s of earthquakes and last for months do occur on occasion.”


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