A Kilauea skylight offers a look at magma that has risen in a seething mantle plume. Similar, larger upwellings are thought to have caused periods of great volcanic activity in the past. Some 120 million years ago a superplume probably formed many of the volcanoes that bristle on the floor of the Pacific Ocean. Their eruptions laid down vast lava plateaus.

Other superplumes blasted upward about the same time. From ancient crucibles they lifted the diamonds found in many of today’s mines. They also may have helped create petroleum fields: Carbon dioxide from volcanoes made a natural greenhouse; plankton thrived and died, forming layers that later became oil.

Geologists hope to dig up more connections. “We need a broader understanding of how the planet operates over time periods that are not the four-year political cycle or the 60-year human cycle,” notes Raymond Jeanloz. “Millions of years is the framework for understanding all global processes, from climate variations to what will happen to the various wastes we create.”

Sixty-five million years ago another plume reached the surface—about when dinosaurs disappeared. One more connection? Some scientists think so, envisioning clouds of ash and gases that blocked sunlight and cooled the climate. If they’re right, the evolution of life itself may be linked to the slow, ceaseless flow of rock thousands of miles beneath our feet.

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