Imagine an active volcano as big as Rhode Island — the biggest non-supervolcano in the Lower 48. Now put it near a city in the heart of US fire-mountain country: the Pacific Northwest.
This exists. It’s called Newberry Volcano.
Newberry sprawls over a sizeable chunk of central Oregon, posing more of a hazard today than Yellowstone does, according to the US Geological Survey’s 2018 volcanic threat assessment. (Let’s keep things in perspective, though: twelve other US volcanoes are considered more dangerous than Newberry, with Kilauea and Mount St. Helens at the top of the list.)
If this volcano’s name doesn’t ring a bell, you’re not alone. Few people outside of the region (and outside Academia, where Newberry Volcano is very famous) have ever heard of it.
It’s not that Newberry — a low-angle shield caldera with many lava flows and scoria cones on its flanks (Global Volcanism Program; Klemetti) — is upstaged by the Cascades, just forty miles to the west, or by Yellowstone, a little farther east.
As we’ll see next week, Newberry Volcano can hold its own with such dramatic geologic features.
No, it’s just that, at ground level, Newberry seems more like a world to most of us, not a single volcano.
From the city of Bend, about twenty miles north of the central caldera (and built on Newberry lava), Newberry Volcano looks like a mountain range.
People often go there for summer and winter recreation.
There are two crater lakes (the original one was split in half by relatively small eruptions that constructed features like Central Pumice Cone and Interlake Obsidian Flow).
The lakes are stocked with fish. There are also many kinds of animals and plants living here naturally; all sorts of scenic outlooks, rivers, and waterfalls; lodges; hot springs; and a zillion trails for hiking, motor vehicles, bicycles, and/or horse-back riding.
During field season in this geyserless mini-Yellowstone Park — at least when no pandemic is on — you’ll also find geologists working the rocks, while archaeologists study First Peoples’ use of the area before Europeans arrived (per Eerkens et al., about twenty percent of the obsidian that moved along the once-extensive native Pacific Northwest trading network was quarried and prepared at Newberry).
Thirty years ago, conservationists succeeded in getting the caldera, parts of Newberry’s upper slopes, and most of the volcano’s recently active Northwest Rift Zone declared a National Monument.
This was spurred along by a desire to protect as much of the volcano’s landscape as possible from geothermal exploration that had begun in the 1980s and continues today on the west flank, which is outside the National Monument boundary.
The energy people have persisted because Newberry has one of the largest and hottest geothermal reservoirs in the country, even counting Hawaii with all its volcanoes. (Bonneville et al.; OSU)
About that heat . . .
On the west flank, they’re drilling into what’s probably an old magma intrusion that never erupted and is now slowly “freezing” into place as a granitic type of rock formation called a pluton. (Bowles-Martinez and Schultz)
Newberry Volcano’s magma chamber is inside the Monument, underneath the caldera. There’s a diagram of this chamber — based on geophysical data collected, I think, by researchers at the University of Oregon — toward the end of the vacation video that’s coming up.
The crater-lake hot springs are no warmer than bath water, but that’s only because Newberry’s pumice and other volcanic structure materials are too porous to hold groundwater close to the surface. (Donnelly-Nolan et al.; Waibel et al.)
Most of the water that collects in this caldera percolates down through the rocks, getting closer to the magma reservoir.
Go down a few thousand feet below the hot springs, and your bath temperature is now a scalding 500 degrees Fahrenheit! (Donnelly-Nolan et al.)
Fortunately, studies show that only about ten percent of the rhyolite magma down there, or less, is currently molten (Bowles-Martinez and Schultz), i.e., eruptible.
But young volcanoes like this rarely settle down for long. Eventually more melt will accumulate underneath Newberry, and it will erupt again.
Per Sherrod et al., the next round of volcanic activity is likely to be explosive, with the worst effects happening in and near the caldera. The last time this sort of eruption happened, around 1,300 years ago, ash reached Idaho and the spectacular Big Obsidian Flow occurred.
However, flank eruptions with extensive lava flows are possible, too.
The experts can’t rule out something even larger, like the blast that shaped Newberry’s present caldera about 75,000 years ago, although such events are rare. (Sherrod et al.)
Nevertheless, ash from that caldera-forming event reached the San Francisco Bay area! (Donnelly-Nolan et al.)
Obviously, the consequences of an eruption at Newberry could (not necessarily “will”) be severe.
That’s why experts take this volcano seriously despite its present calm.
Believe it or not, there used to be only one seismometer here until 2011. The coverage is better now, and this network can pick up even very small changes in the Newberry system.
Volcanologists really have their work cut out for them, though.
Newberry Volcano is — weird. Weird in ways that don’t fit into blog posts, and yet so fascinatingly weird that you want to write and read about it even though scientists themselves are still trying to understand what’s going on.
Weird enough to make some experts reconsider their models of “hot spot” volcanoes like nearby Yellowstone, and continental flood basalts like those along the Columbia River just north of Newberry.
We’ll get into that a little bit next week. Right now, we’re simply going to Newberry as video tourists.
Wastradowski sees it as “a vast complex that unfolds across Central Oregon like a wrinkled blanket.”
Let’s snuggle into that blanket for a while and enjoy the scenery.
(Note: This ambitious video is almost an hour long. As the filmmaker writes in his YouTube description, there aren’t many videos available that encompass the whole of Newberry: it’s too big. He did the Monument section better than I ever could. The usual fact list about this volcano is below the video.)
A personal note: I live on the other side of the Cascades, about seventy miles west of Mount Jefferson, which you’ll see in the video. On exceptionally clear days, I can also see the Three Sisters to the south, too. Gorgeous! (South Sister, in particular, is one of the volcanoes considered more dangerous than Newberry.)
43.722° N, 121.229° W, in Deschutes, Klamath, and Lake counties, Oregon, USA. The GVP Volcano Number is 322110.
Per the Global Volcanism Program website:
- Within 5 km (3 miles): 0.
- Within 10 km (6 miles): 0.
- Within 30 km (19 miles): 16,437.
- Within 100 km (62 miles): 180,091.
Normal, Aviation Code Green.
- Eruption styles: Newberry tends to erupt one of two very different types of magma: either basaltic, which flows fairly easily, or rhyolitic, which is too sticky to release all of its dissolved gases and consequently erupts explosively.
Basalt flows come from vents on Newberry’s flattened slopes. For example, they underlie Bend and also have erupted at Lava Butte. At the caldera, eruptions are rhyolitic, including Paulina Peak and the Big Obsidian Flow. (Sherrod et al).
The light-colored rock that Paulina Falls spills over is also rhyolite — it came out of caldera vents originally as a pyroclastic flow.
- Biggest recorded event: Newberry has erupted frequently since the last ice age ended but, as far as I know, not ever during the time of written records. Native people lived in the caldera until almost two feet of ash fell there during the Crater Lake eruption at Mount Mazama, 75 miles away; after that, they apparently settled elsewhere and just used Newberry for quarrying obsidian. (Eerkens et al.) I found nothing online regarding oral histories. Fieldwork has shown geologists that Newberry has had several large eruptions, including three that formed calderas, the last of which occurred roughly 75,000 years ago.
- Most recent eruption: Around 690 AD: the Big Obsidian Flow event.
- Past history: This is where Newberry’s “weirdness” really kicks in. Let’s save the volcano’s more detailed history for next week, when we look at a regional structure known as the High Lava Plains, though some (but not all) volcanologists call it the “Newberry Track.” We also need to check out the gigantic but extinct McDermitt Caldera and — prepare yourself — the Yellowstone Hot Spot. (Yellowstone Volcano itself will get its own post, number three in this series.)
Surprisingly, I didn’t find Newberry webcams online, other than traffic cams, at least some of which must cover highways on the volcano’s slopes — not scenic, perhaps, but probably very helpful during an emergency.
Featured image: L. Moclock via Wikimedia, public domain.
Bonneville, A.; Cladouhos, T.; Petty, S.; Schultz, A.; and others. 2018, “The Newberry Deep Drilling Project (NDDP) workshop.” Scientific Drilling, 24:79-86.
Bowles‐Martinez, E., and Schultz, A. 2020. Composition of magma and characteristics of the hydrothermal system of Newberry Volcano, Oregon, from magnetotellurics. (Abstract only) Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems, 21(3): e2019GC008831.
Cornett, W. 2018. Newberry National Volcanic Monument. portland State Univerdity/Oregon Historical Society. https://www.oregonencyclopedia.org/articles/newberry_national_volcanic_monument/#.X_zA6keIa2d Last accessed January 11, 2021.
Donnelly-Nolan, J. M.; Stovall, W. K.; Ramsey, D. W., Ewert, J. W.; and Jensen, R. A. 2011. Newberry Volcano—central Oregon’s sleeping giant. US Geological Survey Fact Sheet, 3145(6). http://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/2011/3145/fs2011-3145.pdf (PDF)
Eerkens, J. W.; Spurling, A. M.; and Grers, M. A. 2008. Measuring prehistoric mobility strategies based on obsidian geochemical and technological signatures in the Owens Valley, California. Journal of Archaeological Science, 35(3): 668-680.
Higgins, M. W., and Waters, A. C. 1967. Newberry Caldera, Oregon: A preliminary report. Ore Bin, 29: 37-60.
Klemetti, E. 2011. Additional monitoring proposed for Newberry Caldera in Oregon. https://www.wired.com/2011/04/additional-monitoring-proposed-for-newberry-caldera-in-oregon/ Last accessed January 11, 2021.
Oregon State University (OSU). 2017. September workshop set to explore drilling project at Newberry Volcano. https://today.oregonstate.edu/archives/2017/aug/september-workshop-set-explore-drilling-project-newberry-volcano
Pacific Northwest Seismic Network (PNSN). 2021. Newberry. https://www.pnsn.org/volcanoes/newberry#description
Sherrod, D. R.; Mastin, L. G.; Scott, W. E.; and Schilling, S. P. 1997. Volcano hazards at Newberry Volcano, Oregon. US Geological Survey Open-File Report 97-513.
US Department of Agriculture, Forest Service. n.d. Newberry National Volcanic Monument — Deschutes National Forest. https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/deschutes/recarea/?recid=66159 Last accessed January 11, 2021.
___. n.d. Newberry National Volcanic Monument. https://www.fs.usda.gov/visit/destination/newberry-national-volcanic-monument-0 Last accessed January 11, 2021.
Wastradowski, M. 2020. Newberry is a volcanic treasure so massive you might be on top of it right now. https://bendmagazine.com/newberry-is-a-volcanic-treasure-so-massive-you-might-be-on-top-of-it-right-now/ Last accessed January 11, 2021.
Wikipedia. 2021. Newberry Volcano. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newberry_Volcano Last accessed January