Abstract

The geological record contains evidence of volcanic eruptions that were as much as two orders of magnitude larger than the most voluminous eruption experienced by modern civilizations, the A.D. 1815 Tambora (Indonesia) eruption. Perhaps nowhere on Earth are deposits of such supereruptions more prominent than in the Snake River Plain–Yellowstone Plateau (SRP-YP) volcanic province (northwest United States). While magmatic activity at Yellowstone is still ongoing, the Heise volcanic field in eastern Idaho represents the youngest complete caldera cycle in the SRP-YP, and thus is particularly instructive for current and future volcanic activity at Yellowstone. The Heise caldera cycle culminated 4.5 Ma ago in the eruption of the ∼1800 km3 Kilgore Tuff. Accessory zircons in the Kilgore Tuff display significant intercrystalline and intracrystalline oxygen isotopic heterogeneity, and the vast majority are 18O depleted. This suggests that zircons crystallized from isotopically distinct magma batches that were generated by remelting of subcaldera silicic rocks previously altered by low-δ18O meteoric-hydrothermal fluids. Prior to eruption these magma batches were assembled and homogenized into a single voluminous reservoir. U-Pb geochronology of isotopically diverse zircons using chemical abrasion–isotope dilution–thermal ionization mass spectrometry yielded indistinguishable crystallization ages with a weighted mean 206Pb/238U date of 4.4876 ± 0.0023 Ma (MSWD = 1.5; n = 24). These zircon crystallization ages are also indistinguishable from the sanidine 40Ar/39Ar dates, and thus zircons crystallized close to eruption. This requires that shallow crustal melting, assembly of isolated batches into a supervolcanic magma reservoir, homogenization, and eruption occurred extremely rapidly, within the resolution of our geochronology (103–104 yr). The crystal-scale image of the reservoir configuration, with several isolated magma batches, is very similar to the reservoir configurations inferred from seismic data at active supervolcanoes. The connection of magma batches vertically distributed over several kilometers in the upper crust would cause a substantial increase of buoyancy overpressure, providing an eruption trigger mechanism that is the direct consequence of the reservoir assembly process.

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