There isn’t a ‘supervolcano’ brewing under New England

No, there isn’t a supervolcano brewing beneath New England, despite what some media outlets are saying. 

That said, something weird is going on about 100 miles below the lush New England ground.

Scientists have found a mass of warmer rock that seems appears to be welling upwards. This research, led by geophysicist Vadim Levin, appeared last year in the scientific journal Geology

“We never advocated it could lead to volcanism,” Levin, who performs research at Rutgers University–New Brunswick’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, said in an interview.

This mass of warmer rock — relative to the rock around it — is nowhere near becoming a volcano.

Steaming Yellowstone National Park; a supervolcano.

“It’s basically a blob of hotter rock that rises through cooler rock,” Jess Phoenix, a volcanologist that took no part in the study, said in an interview.

In a press release about the research, Levin is quoted as saying it will take “millions of years” for this blob of hot rock to “get where it’s going.” But this doesn’t mean the rocks will melt or lead to a supervolcano or any volcano at all.

“The one thing you can be absolutely sure of — nothing is going to happen on the surface of New England involving volcanic activity in your lifetime or that of countless generations to come given its current geological situation,” Stanley Mertzman, a volcanologist at Franklin and Marshall College who had no involvement with the study, said via email.

“I just hope some sort of human related descendant is still in existence on Earth given how far into the future this REMOTELY POSSIBLE event might be.”

Scientists have known that this hot mass of rock existed under the region for decades, Phoenix said.

But Levin and his team advanced the understanding of the geologic oddity, using a sophisticated technology called Earthscope, which employs thousands of seismic devices spaced throughout the country to “see” what’s happening deep beneath the ground.

“It’s basically a large antenna looking down into the Earth,” said Levin.

“The cool story that should come out of it is that scientists have a new technology,” said Phoenix.

“That’s the story.”

Yellowstone's Crested Pool hot spring -- not something found in New England.

Yellowstone’s Crested Pool hot spring — not something found in New England.

Levin is interested in how this 200-kilometer (125-mile) long mass of warmer rock might behave over time, and how it came to be.

“It exists — we can see it — but why does it exist?” asks Levin.

It’s all the more curious, he said, because New England shows no evidence of active geologic activity for 200 million years. Levin plans to continue studying the area, and hopes to have more answers, perhaps in a decade’s time.  

Sometimes, hot masses of rising warmer rock can push up and contribute to mountain formation, like in the case of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, said Phoenix, who noted these iconic peaks are not volcanic.

The hot rock well beneath New England, though, isn’t close even meeting the definition of a volcano.

“To even be a volcano you have to have stuff coming out of it,” said Phoenix. 

And the hot rock under New England is certainly no “supervolcano,” capable of erupting at least 240 cubic miles of magma, like Yellowstone.

“The reader should immediately take away the fact that there was no liquid (magma) detected by this particular study. So, NO SUPER PLUME,” Mertzman said.

For those comparing this developing geologic research to a burgeoning supervolcano, scientists are largely unimpressed. 

“It’s terrible journalism,” said Phoenix.

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