EARTH Magazine: Corn Syrup Explains Yellowstone

Yellowstone Roadblock

Yellowstone Roadblock

As many of you know, I don’t just write for fun. This is also how I make my living! If you’re curious about my science writing, my latest story for EARTH magazine just went live. This is one of my favorite pieces I’ve written for EARTH, where I often cover the geophysics beat– think plate tectonics, earthquakes and volcanoes.

Published in the July issue of EARTH, the story is based on a Nature Geoscience study where the team used a physical apparatus (as opposed to a digital computer model) involving corn syrup to model the volcanic processes at work under Yellowstone National Park:

To mimic Yellowstone’s mantle plume, Kincaid and colleagues heated high-viscosity corn syrup to a consistency scaled mathematically to Earth’s mantle, and then injected it into the system. The entire apparatus was held in a freezer set to zero degrees Celsius, which produced a cold skin on the surface of the syrup, mimicking Earth’s lithospheric plates. Over a matter of hours — with 1 minute equivalent to 4 million years, and a 1-centimeter per minute flow rate equivalent to 10 kilometers per million years in the mantle — the system evolved to look remarkably like the pattern of volcanism seen in the Pacific Northwest.

“As far as we know, this is the first experiment looking at how a three-dimensional subduction zone interacts with a three dimensional plume,” says Chris Kincaid, a geophysical fluid dynamicist at the University of Rhode Island and lead author of the study. Physical models may pre-date computer models, but they are no less sophisticated. “This apparatus looks like it’s on life support,” he says. “It’s extremely heavily instrumented.”

Very cool stuff! I love learning more about places I’ve been! Click here to read the rest of the story!

The Corn Syrup Apparatus photo by Kelsey Druken

The Corn Syrup Apparatus. Photo by Kelsey Druken

About theblondecoyote

Mary Caperton Morton is a freelance science and travel writer with degrees in biology and geology and a master’s in science writing. A regular contributor to EARTH magazine, where her favorite beat is the Travels in Geology column, she has also written for the anthologies Best Women's Travel Writing 2010 and Best Travel Writing 2011. Mary is currently based in western Colorado. When she’s not at the computer she can usually be found outside -- hiking, skiing, climbing mountains and taking photographs. Visit her website at
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3 Responses to EARTH Magazine: Corn Syrup Explains Yellowstone

  1. beachman says:

    hey Mary..tomorrow I go and look at a camper that is small like a teardrop, , I am feeling excited ya know…this could be the one I “take a dance with”. On the other hand I am a little bummed bcz it’s not a Little Guy. I have been dreaming of a little guy for almost a yr. but they are all the way up in ohio and signa are buillt 30 miles away in Melbourne, Fl.

    Oh nice pic of the buffalo by the way, the other ???????

  2. Andy says:

    You would make a great Time Lord.

  3. I had just travelled through the Columbia River Gorge, the high desert of Oregon, Snake River and the Snake River Plain and in Idaho the Craters of the Moon, this article put it all together for me, thanks!

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