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Is an Eruption Coming? Examining the Risk of California’s Riskiest Volcano

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California is home to several active volcanoes, with the Long Valley Caldera being classified as one of the state’s riskiest. Over the past few decades, this volcanic region has undergone geological changes and seismic activity, raising concerns about a potential eruption. In this article, we will delve into the research conducted by Caltech scientists, explore the characteristics of the Long Valley Caldera, and analyze the potential risks associated with volcanic activity in California.

Volcanic activity in California

The Long Valley Caldera: A Geological Wonder

The Long Valley Caldera is a broad depression located east of the Sierra Nevada. It spans approximately 40 miles east of Yosemite Valley, 200 miles east of San Francisco, and 250 miles north of downtown Los Angeles. Formed by a super-eruption around 760,000 years ago, the caldera has a rich geological history. This cataclysmic event expelled 140 cubic miles of magma, blanketing vast areas of east-central California in hot ash, which even reached as far as present-day Nebraska.

Monitoring Seismic Activity and Ground Fluctuations

Scientists have closely monitored the Long Valley Caldera for many years, noting significant increases in seismic activity and ground fluctuations since the 1980s. Notably, there were four magnitude 6 earthquakes in the area in May 1980. While such changes are often observed before eruptions, they do not necessarily indicate an imminent eruption. The overall cooling and crystallization of the magma beneath the region suggest a low risk of a supervolcanic eruption in our lifetime.

Unraveling the Mysteries of the Long Valley Caldera

To better understand the recent geological phenomena, scientists sought answers to two critical questions. First, they investigated whether there was enough magma in connected segments of the underground reservoir to combine and erupt. Alternatively, they explored the possibility that non-magma fluids were coming to the surface as the magma cooled and solidified, triggering earthquakes and ground movement. The Caltech scientists concluded that the latter explanation appears to be the answer.

Utilizing high-resolution underground images, seismometers, earthquake measurements, and a machine-learning algorithm, the researchers determined that the cooling process of the magma may release enough gas and liquid to cause earthquakes and small eruptions. While some scientists speculate that the Long Valley Caldera may be moribund, with the increased seismic activity being generated by non-magma fluids, others argue that the caldera remains active.

Assessing the Threat Level

The U.S. Geological Survey classified the Long Valley Caldera as a “very high threat” volcano in 2018, along with two other volcanoes in California: Mt. Shasta and the Lassen Volcanic Center. However, this threat assessment does not rank the volcanoes based on their likelihood of eruption or level of activity. Instead, it combines the volcano’s potential threat with the number of people and properties exposed to it.

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While the risk of a supervolcanic eruption in the Long Valley Caldera is deemed extremely low, the presence of young lava flows in the nearby Mono-Inyo Craters chain suggests the existence of other pockets of magma in the area. This highlights the ongoing threat of powerful earthquake swarms and the need for continued monitoring and research.

Potential Repercussions of Volcanic Activity

California’s volcanoes, including the Long Valley Caldera, pose significant risks that could have lasting repercussions throughout the state. Volcanic ash, when wet, becomes conductive and can disrupt high-voltage lines, impacting the electricity supply to millions of homes. It can also interfere with travel on major routes such as Interstate 5, making roads slippery and potentially impassable.

Furthermore, volcanic ash can disrupt hundreds of daily flights in Northern California and the Mammoth Mountain area, potentially even posing a risk to jetliners. The contamination of water supplies is another concern, particularly given the proximity of California’s largest reservoirs to the Shasta and Lassen volcanoes.

Learning from History: Past Eruptions in California

California has experienced major volcanic eruptions in the past, with the most recent significant eruption occurring over a century ago. Lassen Peak, part of the Lassen Volcanic Center, erupted multiple times between 1914 and 1917. One explosive eruption in 1915 obliterated a forest and created a massive mushroom cloud that reached a height of 30,000 feet. The volcanic ash was carried as far as Eureka, Sacramento, and even Elko, Nevada.

Conclusion: Vigilance and Preparedness

While the Long Valley Caldera shows signs of cooling and contracting magma, it is crucial to remain vigilant and prepared for any potential volcanic activity. The research conducted by Caltech scientists provides valuable insights into the nature of the seismic activity and ground fluctuations observed in the region. By understanding the potential risks and continuously monitoring the volcanic activity in California, we can better protect communities, infrastructure, and natural resources from the potential impacts of an eruption.

Through ongoing research, technological advancements, and collaborations between scientists and government agencies, we can enhance our understanding of volcanic activity and improve preparedness measures. With the knowledge gained from studying the Long Valley Caldera and other volcanoes in California, we can mitigate risks and ensure the safety and well-being of those living in proximity to these natural wonders.


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