Thursday, December 24, 2009

The largest and most explosive volcanic eruptions eject tens to hundreds of cubic kilometers of magma onto the Earth's surface. When such a large volume of magma is removed from beneath a volcano, the ground subsides or collapses into the emptied space, to form a huge depression called a caldera. Some calderas are more than 25 kilometers in diameter and several kilometers deep.

Cross-section through Long Valley Caldera


Calderas are among the most spectacular and active volcanic features on Earth. Earthquakes, ground cracks, uplift or subsidence of the ground, and thermal activity such as hot springs, geysers, and boiling mud pots are common at many calderas. Such activity is caused by complex interactions among magma stored beneath a caldera, ground water, and the regional buildup of stress in the large plates of the Earth's crust. Significant changes in the level of activity at some calderas are common; these new activity levels can be intermittent, lasting for months to years, or persistent over decades to centuries. Although most caldera unrest does not lead to an eruption, the possibility of violent explosive eruptions warrants detailed scientific study and monitoring of some active calderas.

Recently, scientists have recognized volcanic unrest at two calderas in the United States, Long Valley Caldera in eastern California and Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. Whether unrest at these calderas simply punctuates long periods of quiet or is the early warning sign of future eruptions is an important but still unanswered question.

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