Yellowstone Caldera

Yellowstone Caldera
Yellowstone Caldera

The northeastern part of Yellowstone Caldera, with the Yellowstone River flowing through Hayden Valley and the caldera rim in the distance
Elevation 10,308 ft (3,142 m) at Mount Sheridan[1]
Location Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, USA
Range Rocky Mountains
Coordinates 44°24′N 110°42′W / 44.4°N 110.7°W / 44.4; -110.7 (Yellowstone Caldera)Coordinates: 44°24′N 110°42′W / 44.4°N 110.7°W / 44.4; -110.7 (Yellowstone Caldera)
Topo map USGS Yellowstone National Park
Type Caldera[2]
Age of rock 2.1 million years[2]
Last eruption 70,000 years ago (magmatic) / 1350 BC ± 200 years (explosive hydrothermal) / ongoing (nonexplosive hydrothermal)[2]
Easiest route Hike/auto/bus

The Yellowstone Caldera is the volcanic caldera located in Yellowstone National Park in the United States, sometimes referred to as the Yellowstone Supervolcano. The caldera is located in the northwest corner of Wyoming, in which the vast majority of the park is contained. The major features of the caldera measure about 34 by 45 miles (55 by 72 km).[3]



Yellowstone lies over a hotspot where light, hot, molten mantle rock rises towards the surface. While the Yellowstone hotspot is now under the Yellowstone Plateau, it previously helped create the eastern Snake River Plain (to the west of Yellowstone) through a series of huge volcanic eruptions. Although the hotspot's apparent motion is to the east-northeast, the North American Plate is really moving west-southwest over the stationary hotspot in the Earth's mantle.[4]

Over the past 17 million years or so, this hotspot has generated a succession of violent eruptions and less violent floods of basaltic lava. Together these eruptions have helped create the eastern part of the Snake River Plain from a once-mountainous region. At least a dozen of these eruptions were so massive that they are classified as supereruptions. Volcanic eruptions sometimes empty their stores of magma so swiftly that they cause the overlying land to collapse into the emptied magma chamber, forming a geographic depression called a caldera. Calderas formed from explosive supereruptions can be as wide and deep as mid- to large-sized lakes and can be responsible for destroying broad swaths of mountain ranges.

The oldest identified caldera remnant straddles the border near McDermitt, Nevada-Oregon, although there are volcaniclastic piles and arcuate faults that define caldera complexes more than 60 km (37 mi) in diameter in the Carmacks Group of southwest-central Yukon, Canada, which is interpreted to have formed 70 million years ago by the Yellowstone hotspot.[5][6] Progressively younger caldera remnants, most grouped in several overlapping volcanic fields, extend from the Nevada-Oregon border through the eastern Snake River Plain and terminate in the Yellowstone Plateau. One such caldera, the Bruneau-Jarbidge caldera in southern Idaho, was formed between 10 and 12 million years ago, and the event dropped ash to a depth of one foot (30.48 cm) 1,000 miles (1,600 km) away in northeastern Nebraska and killed large herds of rhinoceros, camel, and other animals at Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park. Within the past 17 million years, 142 or more caldera-forming eruptions have occurred from the Yellowstone hotspot.[7]

Yellowstone sits on top of three overlapping calderas. (USGS)

The loosely defined term 'supervolcano' has been used to describe volcanic fields that produce exceptionally large volcanic eruptions. Thus defined, the Yellowstone Supervolcano is the volcanic field which produced the latest three supereruptions from the Yellowstone hotspot. The three super eruptions occurred 2.1 million, 1.3 million, and 640,000 years ago, forming the Island Park Caldera, the Henry's Fork Caldera, and Yellowstone calderas, respectively.[8] The Island Park Caldera supereruption (2.1 million years ago), which produced the Huckleberry Ridge Tuff, was the largest and produced 2,500 times as much ash as the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption. The next biggest supereruption formed the Yellowstone Caldera (640,000 years ago) and produced the Lava Creek Tuff. The Henry's Fork Caldera (1.2 million years ago) produced the smaller Mesa Falls Tuff but is the only caldera from the SRP-Y hotspot that is plainly visible today.[9]

Non-explosive eruptions of lava and less-violent explosive eruptions have occurred in and near the Yellowstone caldera since the last supereruption. The most recent lava flow occurred about 70,000 years ago, while a violent eruption excavated the West Thumb of Lake Yellowstone around 150,000 years ago. Smaller steam explosions occur as well; an explosion 13,800 years ago left a 5 kilometer diameter crater at Mary Bay on the edge of Yellowstone Lake (located in the center of the caldera).[10][11] Currently, volcanic activity is exhibited via numerous geothermal vents scattered throughout the region, including the famous Old Faithful Geyser, plus recorded ground swelling indicating ongoing inflation of the underlying magma chamber.[12]

The volcanic eruptions, as well as the continuing geothermal activity, are a result of a great cove of magma located below the caldera's surface. The magma in this cove contains gases that are kept dissolved only by the immense pressure that the magma is under. If the pressure is released to a sufficient degree by some geological shift, then some of the gases bubble out and cause the magma to expand. This can cause a runaway reaction. If the expansion results in further relief of pressure, for example, by blowing crust material off the top of the chamber, the result is a very big gas explosion.


Number of earthquakes in Yellowstone National Park region (1973 - Feb 1, 2010) [13]

Due to the volcanic and tectonic nature of the region, the Yellowstone Caldera experiences between 1000 and 2000 measurable earthquakes a year, though most are relatively minor, measuring a magnitude of 3 or weaker. Occasionally, numerous earthquakes are detected in a relatively short period of time, an event known as an earthquake swarm. In 1985, more than 3000 earthquakes were measured over several months. More than 70 smaller swarms have been detected between 1983 and 2008. The USGS states that these swarms could be caused more by slips on pre-existing faults than by movements of magma or hydrothermal fluids.[14][15]

In December 2008, continuing into January 2009, more than 500 quakes were detected under the northwest end of Yellowstone Lake over a seven day span, with the largest registering a magnitude of 3.9.[16][17] The most recent swarm started in January 2010 after the Haiti earthquake and before the Chile earthquake. With 1620 small earthquakes between January 17, 2010 and February 1, 2010, this swarm was the second largest ever recorded in the Yellowstone Caldera. The largest of these shocks was a magnitude 3.8 on January 21, 2010 at 11:16 PM MST.[15][18] This swarm reached the background levels by 21 February.

Volcanic hazards

Diagram of the Yellowstone Caldera

The last full-scale eruption of the Yellowstone Supervolcano, the Lava Creek eruption which happened nearly 640,000 years ago,[19] ejected approximately 240 cubic miles (1,000 km3) of rock and dust into the sky.[11]

Geologists are closely monitoring the rise and fall of the Yellowstone Plateau, which measures on average 0.6 inches (1.5 cm) yearly, as an indication of changes in magma chamber pressure.[20][21]

The upward movement of the Yellowstone caldera floor—almost 3 inches (7.6 cm) each year between 2004 and 2008—was more than three times greater than ever observed since such measurements began in 1923.[22] From mid-Summer 2004 through mid-Summer 2008, the land surface within the caldera moved upwards, as much as 8 inches (20 cm) at the White Lake GPS station.[23][24] By the end of 2009, the uplift had slowed significantly and appeared to have stopped.[25] In January 2010, the USGS stated "that uplift of the Yellowstone Caldera has slowed significantly" [26] and uplift continues but at a slower pace.[27] The U.S. Geological Survey, University of Utah and National Park Service scientists with the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory maintain that they "see no evidence that another such cataclysmic eruption will occur at Yellowstone in the foreseeable future. Recurrence intervals of these events are neither regular nor predictable."[11]

Hydrothermal explosion hazard

Studies and analysis may indicate that the greater hazard comes from hydrothermal activity which occurs independently of volcanic activity. Over 20 large craters have been produced in the past 14,000 years, resulting in such features as Mary Bay, Turbid Lake, and Indian Pond which was created in an eruption about 1300 BCE.

Lisa Morgan, a USGS researcher, explored this threat in a 2003 report, and in a talk postulated that an earthquake may have displaced more than 77 million cubic feet (2,200,000 m3) (576,000,000 US gallons) of water in Yellowstone Lake, creating colossal waves that unsealed a capped geothermal system leading into the hydrothermal explosion that formed Mary Bay.[28][29]

Further research shows that earthquakes from great distances do reach and have effects upon the activities at Yellowstone, such as the 1992 7.3 magnitude Landers earthquake in California’s Mojave Desert that triggered a swarm of quakes from more than 800 miles (1,300 km) away and the Denali fault earthquake 2,000 miles (3,200 km) away in Alaska that altered the activity of many geysers and hot springs for several months afterwards.[30]

The head of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory, Jake Lowenstern, has proposed major upgrades and extended monitoring since the U.S. Geological Survey classified Yellowstone as a “high-threat” system.[31]

Yellowstone Hotspot Origin

Path of the Yellowstone hot spot over the past 15 million years

The source of the Yellowstone hotspot is controversial. Some geoscientists hypothesize that the Yellowstone hotspot is the effect of an interaction between local conditions in the lithosphere and upper mantle convection.[32][33] Others prefer a deep mantle origin (mantle plume).[34] Part of the controversy is due to the relatively sudden appearance of the hotspot in the geologic record. Additionally, the Columbia Basalt flows appeared at the same approximate time, causing speculation about their origin.[35]

See also

Further reading

  • Breining, Greg (2007). Super Volcano: The Ticking Time Bomb beneath Yellowstone National Park. St. Paul, MN: Voyageur Press. ISBN 978-0-7603-2925-2. "A popularized scientific look at the Yellowstone area's geological past and potential future" 
  • Vazquez, J.A.; Reid, M.R. (2002). "Time scales of magma storage and differentiation of voluminous rhyolites at Yellowstone caldera". Contributions to Mineralogy & Petrology (Wyoming) 144 (3): 274–285. doi:10.1007/s00410-002-0400-7. 
  • Sutherland, Wayne; Sutherland, Judy (2003). Yellowstone Farewell. Spur Ridge. "A novel looking at an eruption in the Yellowstone Caldera written by a practicing Wyoming geologist. Contains a wealth of technical details on the geology of western Wyoming" 


  1. ^ "Mount Sheridan,vbe 3 Wyoming". Retrieved 2008-12-31. 
  2. ^ a b c "Yellowstone". Global Volcanism Program, Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved 2008-12-31. 
  3. ^ As determined by geological field work conducted by Bob Christiansen of the United States Geological Survey in the 1960s and 1970s.
  4. ^ "Yellowstone Caldera, Wyoming—USGS". Cascade Volcano Observatory. United States Geological Survey. 2003-01-22. Retrieved 2008-12-30. 
  5. ^ Johnson, Stehen T.; Wynne, P. Jane; Hart, Craig J. R.; Enkin, Randolph J.; Engebretson, David C.; Engebretson, David C. (1996). "Yellowstone in Yukon: The Late Cretaceous Carmacks Group". Geology (Geological Society of America) 24 (11): 997, 998. doi:10.1130/0091-7613(1996)024<0997:YIYTLC>2.3.CO;2. ISSN 0091-7613. 
  6. ^ "Yellowstone hotspot track". Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Retrieved 2010-06-10. 
  7. ^ Breining, Greg, Super Volcano: The Ticking Time Bomb beneath Yellowstone National Park (St. Paul, MN: Voyageur Press, 2007). ISBN 978-0-7603-2925-2
  8. ^ Newhall and Daniel Dzurisin, 1988, Historical Unrest at Large Calderas of the World: U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 1855
  9. ^ This qualitative statement is easily verified by reviewing the Yellowstone area in Google Earth
  10. ^ "Introduction to hydrothermal (steam) explosions in Yellowstone.". Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone Net. Retrieved 2008-12-31. 
  11. ^ a b c Jacob B. Lowenstern; Robert L. Christiansen, Robert B. Smith, Lisa A. Morgan, and Henry Heasler (2005-05-10). Steam Explosions, Earthquakes, and Volcanic Eruptions—What’s in Yellowstone’s Future? - U.S. Geological Survey Fact Sheet 2005-3024. United States Geological Survey. Retrieved 2008-12-31. 
  12. ^ Magma rising
  13. ^ "Yellowstone National Park Earthquake listings". Retrieved 2010-02-01. 
  14. ^ "Yellowstone Earthquake Swarms". Yellowstone Volcanic Observatory. Retrieved 2009-01-01. 
  15. ^ a b "January 2010 Yellowstone Seismicity Summary". Retrieved 2010-02-01. 
  16. ^ "Archive of Yellowstone Updates for 2009". 
  17. ^ "UUSS Webicorder (Seismogram) at Lake for December 31, 2008". Retrieved 2009-01-01. 
  18. ^ Johnson, Kirk (2010-02-01). "Hundreds of Quakes Are Rattling Yellowstone". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-02-01. 
  19. ^ "Undine Falls, Lava Creek, Yellowstone National Park". United States Geological Survey. Retrieved 2009-01-02. 
  20. ^ John Timmer (2007-11-08). "Yellowstone recharges". Retrieved 2007-11-08. 
  21. ^ Smith, Robert B.; Wu-Lung Chang, Lee Siegel (2007-11-08). "Yellowstone rising: Volcano inflating with molten rock at record rate". Press release, University of Utah Public Relations (EurekAlert! (American Association for the Advancement of Science)). Retrieved 2007-11-09. 
  22. ^ Molten Rock Fills Yellowstone Volcano at Record Rate Newswise, Retrieved on September 2, 2008.
  23. ^ "Recent ups and downs of the Yellowstone Caldera". Yellowstone Volcano Observatory. United States Geological Survey. 2008-09-28. Retrieved 2008-12-31. 
  24. ^ Smith, Robert B.; Jordan, Michael; Steinberger, Bernhard; Puskas, Christine M.; Farrell, Jamie; Waite, Gregory P.; Husen, Stephan; Chang, Wu-Lung; O'Connell, Richard (20 November 2009). "Geodynamics of the Yellowstone hotspot and mantle plume: Seismic and GPS imaging, kinematics and mantle flow". Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research 188 (1-3): 26–56. doi:10.1016/j.jvolgeores.2009.08.020. 
  25. ^
  26. ^
  27. ^
  28. ^ "Frequently asked questions about recent findings at Yellowstone Lake". Yellowstone Volcano Observatory. United States Geological Survey. 2008-09-11. Retrieved 2008-12-31. 
  29. ^ "Tsunami linked to Yellowstone crater". USA Today. 2008-01-14. Retrieved 2008-12-31. 
  30. ^ "Quake in Alaska Changed Yellowstone Geysers". University of Utah. 2004-05-27. Retrieved 2008-12-31. 
  31. ^ Yellowstone is being monitored
  32. ^ Foulger, Gillian (2006-02-08). "Yellowstone". Retrieved 2008-02-10. 
  33. ^ Christiansen, Robert L.; G.R. Foulger, and John R. Evans (2002-10). "Upper-mantle origin of the Yellowstone hotspot". Geological Society of America Bulletin (Geological Society of America) 114 (10): 1245–1256. doi:10.1130/0016-7606(2002)114<1245:UMOOTY>2.0.CO;2. Retrieved 2008-12-31. 
  34. ^ See list of off-line references in
  35. ^ Ivanov, Alexei V. (2007-02-07). "The Columbia River Flood Basalts: Consequence of subduction-related processes". Retrieved 2008-12-31. 

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