Origins of the caldera

The tectonic causes of the volcanism that have produced the Long Valley Caldera are still largely unexplained and are therefore a matter of much ongoing research. Long Valley is not above a hotspot as is Yellowstone or Hawaii, nor is it the result of subduction such as that which produces the volcanism of the Cascades.

The known volcanic history of the Long Valley Caldera area started several million years ago when magma began to collect several miles below the surface. Volcanic activity became concentrated in the vicinity of the present site of Long Valley Caldera 3.1 to 2.5 million years ago with eruptions of rhyodacite followed by high-silica rhyolite from 2.1 to 0.8 million years ago. After some time a cluster of mostly rhyolitic volcanoes formed in the area. All told, about 1,500 square miles (4,000 square kilometers) were covered by lava.

All but one of these volcanoes, 1-2 million year old Glass Mountain (made of obsidian), was completely destroyed by the major eruption of the area 760,000 years ago, which released 600 cubic kilometres of material from vents just inside the margin of the caldera (the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption was 1.2 km³). About half of this material was ejected in a series of pyroclastic flows of a very hot (1,500 degree Fahrenheit or 800 degree Celsius) mixture of noxious gas, pumice, and ash that covered the surrounding area hundreds of feet deep. One lobe of this material moved south into Owens Valley, past where Big Pine, California now lies. Another lobe moved west over the crest of the Sierra Nevada and into the drainage of the San Joaquin River. The rest of the pyroclastic material along with 300 km³ of other matter, was blown as far as 25 miles (40 km) into the air where winds distributed it as far away as eastern Nebraska and Kansas. However, much of the material ejected straight into the air fell back to earth to fill the 2 to 3 km deep caldera two-thirds to its rim.

[edit] Since the eruption

Subsequent eruptions from the Long Valley magma chamber were confined within the caldera with extrusions of relatively hot (crystal-free) rhyolite 700,000 to 600,000 years ago as the caldera floor was upwarped to form the resurgent dome followed by extrusions of cooler, crystal-rich moat rhyolite at 200,000-year intervals (500,000, 300,000, and 100,000 years ago) in clockwise succession around the resurgent dome.

At its height 600,000 years ago, an Owens River-fed 300 foot (91 m) deep lake filled the caldera and rose to an elevation of 7,800 feet (2,400 m) above sea level. The lake was completely drained sometime in the last 100,000 years after it overtopped the southern rim of the caldera, eroded the sill and created the Owens River Gorge. A dam in the gorge has partially restored part of that lake which is now known as Lake Crowley. Since the great eruption many hot springs developed in the area and the resurgent dome has uplifted.

During the last ice age, glaciers filled the canyons leading to Long Valley, but the valley floor was clear of ice. Excellent examples of terminal moraines can be seen at Long Valley: these moraines are the debris left from glacial sculpting. Laurel Creek, Convict Creek, and McGee Creek all have prominent moraines.

[edit] Recent geology

Cross-section through Long Valley Cross-section through Long Valley

In May of 1980, a strong earthquake swarm that included four Richter magnitude 6 earthquakes struck the southern margin of Long Valley Caldera associated with a 10 inch (25-cm), dome-shaped uplift of the caldera floor.[1] These events marked the onset of the latest period of caldera unrest that continues to this day.[1] This ongoing unrest includes recurring earthquake swarms and continued dome-shaped uplift of the central section of the caldera (the resurgent dome) accompanied by changes in thermal springs and gas emissions.[1] After the quake another road was created as an escape route. Its name at first was proposed as the "Mammoth Escape Route" but was changed to the Mammoth Scenic Route after Mammoth area businesses and land owners complained.

In 1982, the United States Geological Survey under the Volcano Hazards Program began an intensive effort to monitor and study geologic unrest in Long Valley Caldera.[1] The goal of this effort is to provide residents and civil authorities in the area reliable information on the nature of the potential hazards posed by this unrest and timely warning of an impending volcanic eruption, should it develop.[1] Most, perhaps all, volcanic eruptions are preceded and accompanied by geophysical and geochemical changes in the volcanic system.[1] Common precursory indicators of volcanic activity include increased seismicity, ground deformation, and variations in the nature and rate of gas emissions.[1]

Alternate figure of Long Valley Caldera cross-section Alternate figure of Long Valley Caldera cross-section

[edit] Hydrothermal system

The Long Valley Caldera hosts an active hydrothermal system that includes hot springs, fumaroles (steam vents), and mineral deposits. Hot springs exist primarily in the eastern half of the caldera where land-surface elevations are relatively low; fumaroles exist primarily in the western half where elevations are higher. Mineral deposits from thermal activity are found on an uplifted area called the resurgent dome, at Little Hot Creek springs, Hot Creek Gorge, and other locations in the south and east moats of the caldera.[2]

Hot Creek Fish Hatchery at base of Resurgent Dome Hot Creek Fish Hatchery at base of Resurgent Dome

Hot springs discharge primarily in Hot Creek Gorge, along Little Hot Creek, and in the Alkali Lakes area. The largest springs are in Hot Creek Gorge where about 250 liters per second of thermal water discharge and account for about 80% of the total thermal water discharge in the caldera. At the other extreme are springs at Hot Creek Fish Hatchery which contain a small component (2-5%) of thermal water that raises water temperatures about 5°C higher than background temperatures. Use of the warm spring water in the hatchery has increased fish production because trout growth rates are faster in the warm water than in ambient stream temperatures in Long Valley.[2]

Little Hot Creek Little Hot Creek

In hydrothermal systems the circulation of groundwater is driven by a combination of topography and heat sources. In Long Valley Caldera, the system is recharged primarily from snow-melt in the highlands around the western and southern rims of the caldera. The meteoric water infiltrates to depths of a few kilometers where it is heated to at least 220°C by hot rock near geologically young intrusions. Upflow occurs in the west moat where the heated water with lower density rises along steeply inclined fractures to depths of 1-2 km. This hydrothermal fluid flows laterally, down the hydraulic gradient, from the west to the southeast around the resurgent dome and then eastward to discharge points along Hot Creek and around Crowley Lake. Reservoir temperatures in the volcanic fill decline from 220°C near the Inyo Craters to 50°C near Crowley Lake due to a combination of heat loss and mixing with cold water.[2]

Hot Creek has been a popular local swimming hole for decades. Over a dozen people have died in Hot Creek since the late 1960s but most of these deaths happened to individuals who ignored the numerous warning signs and attempted to use the hydrothermal pools as hot tubs (like the stream portion of the creek, these pools alternate in temperature but the eruptions in the pools are of super-heated water in already very hot water). Recent geothermal instability has led to its temporary closure for swimming. Officials are unsure when (if ever) Hot Creek will officially reopen for swimming.

Copyright © 2006-21 Claud "Sonny" Rouch, all rights reserved. Website by OACYS Technology. Cover photo by Roberts Engineering.