A supervolcano is a large volcano that has had an eruption of magnitude 8, which is the largest value on the Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI). This means the volume of deposits for that eruption is greater than 1,000 cubic kilometers (240 cubic miles).
Supervolcanoes occur when magma in the mantle rises into the crust but is unable to break through it and pressure builds in a large and growing magma pool until the crust is unable to contain the pressure. This can occur at hotspots (for example, Yellowstone Caldera) or at subduction zones (for example, Toba). Large-volume supervolcanic eruptions are also often associated with large igneous provinces, which can cover huge areas with lava and volcanic ash. These can cause long-lasting climate change (such as the triggering of a small ice age) and threaten species with extinction. The Oruanui eruption of New Zealand's Taupo Volcano (about 26,500 years ago) was the world's most recent super eruption at a VEI-8 eruption.
The origin of the term "supervolcano" is linked to an early 20th-century scientific debate about the geological history and features of the Three Sisters volcanic region of Oregon in the United States. In 1925, Edwin T. Hodge suggested that a very large volcano, which he named Mount Multnomah, had existed in that region. He believed that several peaks in the Three Sisters area are the remnants of Mount Multnomah after it had been largely destroyed by violent volcanic explosions, similar to Mount Mazama. In 1948, the possible existence of Mount Multnomah was ignored by volcanologist Howel Williams in his book The Ancient Volcanoes of Oregon. The book was reviewed in 1949 by another volcanologist, F. M. Byers Jr. In the review, Byers refers to Mount Multnomah as a supervolcano. Subsequent research proved that each peak of the Three Sisters was formed independently, and that Mount Multnomah did not exist.
More than fifty years after Williams' book was published, the term supervolcano was popularised by the BBC popular science television program Horizon in 2000, to refer to eruptions that produce extremely large amounts of ejecta.
The term megacaldera is sometimes used for caldera supervolcanoes, such as the Blake River Megacaldera Complex in the Abitibi greenstone belt of Ontario and Quebec, Canada. Eruptions that rate VEI 8 are termed "super eruptions". Though there is no well-defined minimum explosive size for a "supervolcano", there are at least two types of volcanic eruptions that have been identified as supervolcanoes: large igneous provinces and massive eruptions.
Large igneous provinces
Large igneous provinces, such as Iceland, the Siberian Traps, Deccan Traps, and the Ontong Java Plateau, are extensive regions of basalts on a continental scale resulting from flood basalt eruptions. When created, these regions often occupy several thousand square kilometres and have volumes on the order of millions of cubic kilometers. In most cases, the lavas are normally laid down over several million years. They release large amounts of gases.
The Réunion hotspot produced the Deccan Traps about 66 million years ago, coincident with the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event. The scientific consensus is that a meteor impact was the cause of the extinction event, but the volcanic activity may have caused environmental stresses on extant species up to the Cretaceous–Paleogene boundary. Additionally, the largest flood basalt event (the Siberian Traps) occurred around 250 million years ago and was coincident with the largest mass extinction in history, the Permian–Triassic extinction event, although it is unknown whether it was solely responsible for the extinction event.
Such outpourings are not explosive, though lava fountains may occur. Many volcanologists consider that Iceland may be a large igneous province that is currently being formed. The last major outpouring occurred in 1783–84 from the Laki fissure which is approximately 40 km (25 mi) long. An estimated 14 km3 (3.4 cu mi) of basaltic lava was poured out during the eruption.
Massive explosive eruptions
Volcanic eruptions are classified using the Volcanic Explosivity Index, or VEI. It is a logarithmic scale, which means that an increase of one in VEI number is equivalent to a tenfold increase in volume of erupted material. VEI 7 or VEI 8 eruptions are so powerful that they often form circular calderas rather than cones because the downward withdrawal of magma causes the overlying rock mass to collapse into the empty magma chamber beneath it.
Known super eruptions
VEI 7 eruptions, less colossal but still massive, have occurred in historical times. Four VEI 7 eruptions have occurred within the past 2000 years: Taupo Volcano's Hatepe eruption c. 232, the 946 eruption of Paektu Mountain, the eruption of Mount Samalas in 1257, and the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora.
|Name||Zone||Location||Event / notes||Years ago before 1950 (Approx.)||Ejecta volume (Approx.)|
|Mount Tambora||Sumbawa Island, West Nusa Tenggara||Indonesia||This eruption took place in 1815. 1816 became known as the Year Without a Summer.||135||120 km3|
|Mount Samalas||Lombok Island, West Nusa Tenggara||Indonesia||1257 Samalas eruption. Possible trigger of the Little Ice Age.||693||130 km3[vague]|
|Baekdu Mountain||Control by Baikal Rift Zone||China/North Korea||One of the largest volcanic eruptions in the past 2,000 years. 946 eruption of Paektu Mountain (Millennium Eruption).||1,004||100–120 km3|
|Taupo Volcano (Lake Taupo)||Taupo Volcanic Zone||New Zealand, North Island||Hatepe eruption AD 232||1,718||120 km3 |
|Thera (Santorini caldera)||South Aegean Volcanic Arc||Greece, Santorini||Minoan eruption BC 1,641 (±12)||3,591||100 km3 |
|Kikai Caldera||Japan, Ryukyu Islands||Akahoya eruption 5,300 BC||7,300||170 km3|
|Macauley Island||Kermadec Islands||New Zealand||Macauley Island 8,300 to 6,300 years ago||6,300||100 km3 |
|Mount Mazama (Crater Lake)||Cascade Volcanic Arc||U.S., Oregon||Partially responsible for the formation of Crater Lake.||6,578||100 km3 |
|Kurile Lake||Kamchatka Peninsula||Russia||Kurile Lake
|10,500||140–170 km3 |
|Aira Caldera||Japan, Kyūshū||Aira-Tanzawa ash||30,000||450 km3|
|Campanian Ignimbrite eruption||Campi Flegrei (Phlegraean Fields)||Italy, Naples||39,280||300 km3*|
|Rotoiti Ignimbrite||Taupo Volcanic Zone||New Zealand, North Island||Rotoiti Ignimbrite||50,000||240 km3 |
|Lake Maninjau||Lake Maninjau, West Sumatra||Indonesia||52,000||220–250 km³|
|Aso Caldera||Japan, Kyūshū||Aso-4 pyroclastic flow||90,000||600 km3|
|Reporoa Caldera||Taupo Volcanic Zone||New Zealand, North Island||230,000||100 km3 |
|Mamaku Ignimbrite||Taupo Volcanic Zone||New Zealand, North Island||Rotorua Caldera||240,000||280 km3 |
|Matahina Ignimbrite||Taupo Volcanic Zone||New Zealand, North Island||Haroharo Caldera||280,000||120 km3 |
|Mount Aso||Japan, Kyūshū||Four large eruptions between 300,000 and 80,000 years ago.||300,000||600 km3|
|Long Valley Caldera||Bishop Tuff||U.S., California||760,000||600 km3|
|Mangakino||Taupo Volcanic Zone||New Zealand, North Island||Three eruptions from 0.97 to 1.23 million years ago||970,000||300 km3 |
|Valles Caldera||Jemez volcanic field||U.S., New Mexico||Two eruptions at 1.25 and 1.61 million years ago||1,250,000
|600 km3 |
|Henry's Fork Caldera||Yellowstone hotspot
Mesa Falls Tuff
|U.S., Idaho||Yellowstone hotspot||1,300,000||280 km3 |
|825 km3 |
|Pastos Grandes Ignimbrite||Pastos Grandes Caldera||Bolivia||2,900,000||820 km3 |
|Heise Volcanic Field||Yellowstone hotspot
|U.S., Idaho||Yellowstone hotspot||6,400,000||750 km3 |
|Bruneau-Jarbidge caldera||Yellowstone hotspot||U.S., Idaho||Yellowstone hotspot
Responsible for the Ashfall Fossil Beds 1,600 km to the east
|950 km3 |
|Cerro Panizos||Altiplano-Puna volcanic complex||Argentina, Bolivia||12,000,000||250 km3|
|Bennett Lake Volcanic Complex||Skukum Group||Canada, British Columbia/Yukon||50,000,000||850 km3 |
* means DRE (dense rock equivalent).
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- Timeline of volcanism on Earth
- Toba catastrophe theory – Supereruption 75,000 years ago that may have caused a global volcanic winter
- Volcanic winter – Temperature anomaly event caused by a volcanic eruption
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- Overview and Transcript of the original BBC program
- Yellowstone Supervolcano and Map of Supervolcanoes Around The World
- USGS Fact Sheet – Steam Explosions, Earthquakes, and Volcanic Eruptions – What's in Yellowstone's Future?
- Scientific American's The Secrets of Supervolcanoes
- Supervolcano eruption mystery solved, BBC Science, 6 January 2014