The word supervolcano may sound like something out of a bad action movie starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, but, believe it or not, it’s a real term that people use to describe geologic formations here in our solar system and principally, on Earth. The United States Geological Survey defines a supervolcano as a volcano that has erupted and deposited more than 1000 cubic kilometers of material. 1000 cubic kilometers of material is enough to cover the entire United States with ten centimeters of material; on top of that, this amount is just for one eruption!
It is a well-established fact that Yellowstone National Park sits on a huge supervolcano, resulting in unique features like geysers and hot springs. Scientists at Texas A&M University have discovered a new supervolcano that appears to dwarf Yellowstone, any other volcano on Earth, and even any in the solar system. The newly identified supervolcano is called Tamu Massif, a clever homage to the initials of Texas A&M University and a tribute to its colossal size. It lies about a thousand miles east of Japan on an oceanic plateau called the Shatsky Rise.
The researchers at Texas A&M discovered the general formation of Tamu Massif in the 90s, but did not suspect that the entire formation was really one large volcano until recently. Based on recent drilling and testing, the principal researcher, William Sager believes that Tamu Massif may be one huge volcano. Sager and his colleagues’ research was published in Nature Geoscience in early September. If Tamu Massif is, in fact, a single volcano as the evidence suggests, then it is only slightly smaller in total volume than the biggest volcano in the solar system, Olympus Mons, which dominates the Martian landscape.
Tamu Massif’s base lies about four miles beneath the surface of the ocean while the top of the volcano is just over a mile from the surface, but the sides extend for hundreds of miles in all directions, making the sides of the volcano very shallow. Sager says that if one were to stand on one flank of the volcano, it would be hard to tell which way the summit was because the sides of the volcano appear to be almost flat.
Tamu Massif covers an area on the seafloor of about 120,000 square miles, which is more than all of New England, Pennsylvania, and New York. It’s easy to see why researchers didn’t originally think that the entire formation could have just come from one volcano. The fact that the rock in that area all came from one volcano is a testament to the power of Tamu Massif and whatever geologic forces were produced within the mantle. Scientists hope that by researching Tamu Massif and other large volcanoes like it, they will better understand the geologic processes that form volcanoes and the reason for their existence.