If another eruption occurs at the Salton Buttes, it will likely mimic past breakouts, Schmitt said. The volcanoes are made of sticky, slow-moving rhyolite lava. At Obsidian Butte, the lava cooled so quickly it turned into glass. However, pumice and ash found nearby means past breakouts started with a bang.
Schmitt said he hopes to study the area in more detail to better understand the most recent eruption. "The amounts of magma involved are relatively small and the impacts of an explosive eruption, meaning an ash cloud, would most likely be very local," he said. "We don't know very well how far any ash would have been dispersed, and that's something I would like to follow up on in the research."
Researching future hazards
The National Science Foundation's EarthScope project funds an extensive seismic imaging project in the Salton Sea that may soon reveal more information about what's happening deep underground.
"We'll be looking with great interest to see what we can tell from the Salton Seismic Imaging Project," said Joann Stock, a Caltech professor and an expert on the region's volcanic hazards who was not involved in the new study.
"I think [Schmitt's study] is a great contribution," she said. "It's an area where we should be concerned. We know that there's a lot of hot stuff down there," she told OurAmazingPlanet.
In August, an earthquake swarm shook the nearby town of Brawley. The USGS attributed the temblors to faults in the Brawley Seismic Zone. In September, a sulfurous stench emanated from the Salton Sea and wafted across the Inland Empire. The odor was tentatively linked to a fish die-off, but could also have been caused by volcanic gases, Stock said.
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