Supervolcano Yellowstone

It is little known that lying underneath one of The United States largest and most picturesque National Parks – Yellowstone Park – is one of the largest “super volcanoes” in the world.

Each year, millions of visitors come to admire the hot springs and geysers of Yellowstone, the Nation’s first national park. Few are aware that these wonders are fueled by heat from a large reservoir of partially molten rock (magma), just a few miles beneath their feet. As this magma-which drives one of the world’s largest volcanic systems-rises, it pushes up the Earth’s crust beneath the Yellowstone Plateau.

Eruptions of the Yellowstone volcanic system have included the two largest volcanic eruptions in North America in the past few million years; the third largest was at Long Valley in California and produced the Bishop ash bed. The biggest of the Yellowstone eruptions occurred 2.1 million years ago, depositing the Huckleberry Ridge ash bed. These eruptions left behind huge volcanic depressions called “calderas” and spread volcanic ash over large parts of North America (see map). If another large caldera-forming eruption were to occur at Yellowstone, its effects would be worldwide. Thick ash deposits would bury vast areas of the United States, and injection of huge volumes of volcanic gases into the atmosphere could drastically affect global climate.

Fortunately, the Yellowstone volcanic system shows no signs that it is headed toward such an eruption in the near future. In fact, the probability of any such event occurring at Yellowstone within the next few thousand years is exceedingly low.

The term “supervolcano” has no specifically defined scientific meaning. It was used by the producers of The BBC TV show Horizion in 2000 to refer to volcanoes that have generated Earth’s largest volcanic eruptions.

Scientists evaluate natural-hazard levels by combining their knowledge of the frequency and the severity of hazardous events. In the Yellowstone region, damaging hydrothermal explosions and earthquakes can occur several times a century. Lava flows and small volcanic eruptions occur only rarely—none in the past 70,000 years. Massive caldera-forming eruptions, though the most potentially devastating of Yellowstone’s hazards, are extremely rare—only three have occurred in the past several million years. U.S. Geological Survey, University of Utah, and National Park Service scientists with the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory (YVO) 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. credit: USGS

Scientists have revealed that Yellowstone Park has been on a regular eruption cycle of 600,000 years. The last eruption was 640,000 years ago…so the next is overdue. The next eruption could be 2,500 times the size of the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption. Volcanologists have been tracking the movement of magma under the park and have calculated that in parts of Yellowstone the ground has risen over seventy centimeters this century.

Normal volcanoes are formed by a column of magma – molten rock – rising from deep within the Earth, erupting on the surface, and hardening in layers down the sides. This forms the familiar cone shaped mountain we associate with volcanoes.


Supervolcanoes, however, begin life when magma rises from the mantle to create a boiling reservoir in the Earth’s crust. This chamber increases to an enormous size, building up colossal pressure until it finally erupts. The explosion would send ash, dust, and sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, reflecting the sun’s rays and creating a cold wave lasting several years. Crops in many areas would fail and many species of animals and plants would face extinction.

Caldera-Forming Eruptions

The Yellowstone region has produced three exceedingly large volcanic eruptions in the past 2.1 million years. In each of these cataclysmic events, enormous volumes of magma erupted at the surface and into the atmosphere as mixtures of red-hot pumice, volcanic ash (small, jagged fragments of volcanic glass and rock), and gas that spread as pyroclastic (“fire-broken”) flows in all directions. Rapid withdrawal of such large volumes of magma from the subsurface then caused the ground to collapse, swallowing overlying mountains and creating broad cauldron-shaped volcanic depressions called “calderas.”

The first of these caldera-forming eruptions 2.1 million years ago created a widespread volcanic deposit known as the Huckleberry Ridge Tuff, an outcrop of which can be viewed at Golden Gate, south of Mammoth Hot Springs. This titanic event, one of the five largest individual volcanic eruptions known anywhere on the Earth, formed a caldera more than 60 miles (100 km) across.
A similar, smaller but still huge eruption occurred 1.3 million years ago. This eruption formed the Henrys Fork Caldera, located in the area of Island Park, west of Yellowstone National Park, and produced another widespread volcanic deposit called the Mesa Falls Tuff.

The region’s most recent caldera-forming eruption 640,000 years ago created the 35-mile-wide, 50-mile-long (55 by 80 km) Yellowstone Caldera. Pyroclastic flows from this eruption left thick volcanic deposits known as the Lava Creek Tuff, which can be seen in the south-facing cliffs east of Madison, where they form the north wall of the caldera. Huge volumes of volcanic ash were blasted high into the atmosphere, and deposits of this ash can still be found in places as distant from Yellowstone as Iowa, Louisiana, and California.

Each of Yellowstone’s explosive caldera-forming eruptions occurred when large volumes of “rhyolitic” magma accumulated at shallow levels in the Earth’s crust, as little as 3 miles (5 km) below the surface. This highly viscous (thick and sticky) magma, charged with dissolved gas, then moved upward, stressing the crust and generating earthquakes. As the magma neared the surface and pressure decreased, the expanding gas caused violent explosions. Eruptions of rhyolite have been responsible for forming many of the world’s calderas, such as those at Katmai National Park, Alaska, which formed in an eruption in 1912, and at Long Valley, California.

If another large caldera-forming eruption were to occur at Yellowstone, its effects would be worldwide. Thick ash deposits would bury vast areas of the United States, and injection of huge volumes of volcanic gases into the atmosphere could drastically affect global climate. Fortunately, the Yellowstone volcanic system shows no signs that it is headed toward such an eruption. The probability of a large caldera-forming eruption within the next few thousand years is exceedingly low.

Lava Flows

More likely in Yellowstone than a large explosive caldera-forming eruption is eruption of a lava flow, which would be far less devastating. Since Yellowstone’s last caldera-forming eruption 640,000 years ago, about 30 eruptions of rhyolitic lava flows have nearly filled the Yellowstone Caldera. Other flows of rhyolite and basalt (a more fluid variety of lava) also have been extruded outside the caldera. Each day, visitors to the park drive and hike across the lavas that fill the caldera, most of which were erupted since 160,000 years ago, some as recently as about 70,000 years ago. These extensive rhyolite lavas are very large and thick, and some cover as much as 130 square miles (340 km2), twice the area of Washington, D.C. During eruption, these flows oozed slowly over the surface, moving at most a few hundred feet per day for several months to several years, destroying everything in their paths.


From 1,000 to 3,000 earthquakes typically occur each year within Yellowstone National Park and its immediate surroundings. Although most are too small to be felt, these quakes reflect the active nature of the Yellowstone region, one of the most seismically active areas in the United States. Each year, several quakes of magnitude 3 to 4 are felt by people in the park.

Although some quakes are caused by rising magma and hot-ground-water movement, many emanate from regional faults related to crustal stretching and mountain building. For example, major faults along the Teton, Madison, and Gallatin Ranges pass through the park and likely existed long before the beginning of volcanism there. Movements along many of these faults are capable of producing significant earthquakes. The most notable earthquake in Yellowstone’s recent history occurred in 1959. Centered near Hebgen Lake, just west of the park, it had a magnitude of 7.5. This quake caused $11 million in damage (equivalent to $70 million in 2005 dollars) and killed 28 people, most of them in a landslide that was triggered by the quake.

Geologists conclude that large earthquakes like the Hebgen Lake event are unlikely within the Yellowstone Caldera itself, because subsurface temperatures there are high, weakening the bedrock and making it less able to rupture. However, quakes within the caldera can be as large as magnitude 6.5. A quake of about this size that occurred in 1975 near Norris Geyser Basin was felt throughout the region.

Even distant earthquakes can affect Yellowstone. In November 2002, the magnitude 7.9 Denali Fault earthquake struck central Alaska, 1,900 miles (3,100 km) northwest of Yellowstone. Because this quake’s energy was focused toward the active Yellowstone volcanic and hydrothermal system, it triggered hundreds of small earthquakes there. The region’s hydrothermal system is highly sensitive to quakes and undergoes significant changes in their wake. Earthquakes may have the potential to cause Yellowstone’s hot-water system to destabilize and produce explosive hydrothermal eruptions.

Hydrothermal Explosions

The large magma reservoir beneath Yellowstone may have temperatures higher than 1,475°F (800°C), and the surrounding rocks are heated by it. Because of this, the average heat flow from the Earth’s interior at Yellowstone is about 30 times greater than that typical for areas elsewhere in the northern Rocky Mountains. As snowmelt and rainfall seep deep into the ground, they can absorb enough of this heat to raise the temperature of the ground water close to the boiling point. Geyser basins and other thermal areas in Yellowstone National Park are places where hot ground water has risen close to the surface. Research drilling at Yellowstone in the 1960s confirmed that the ground water beneath many of the park’s thermal areas is very hot. At Norris Geyser Basin, water temperatures as high as 460°F (238°C) were recorded at depths of only 1,090 feet (332 m).

Because the boiling point of water increases with increasing pressure and pressure increases with depth, deep water can be hotter than boiling water near the surface. If the pressure that confines this deep water is reduced quickly, pockets of water may suddenly boil, causing an explosion as the water is converted to steam. Such activity drives the eruptions of geysers, like Old Faithful, which are repetitive releases of plumes of steam and water. Rarely, steam explosions are more violent and can hurl water and rock thousands of feet. In Yellowstone’s geologic past, such violent events, called “hydrothermal explosions,” have occurred countless times, creating new landscapes of hills and craters.

A recent and notable hydrothermal explosion occurred in 1989 at Porkchop Geyser in Norris Geyser Basin. The remains of this explosion are still clearly visible today as an apron of rock debris 15 feet (5 m) across surrounding Porkchop’s central spring. In the 1880s and early 1890s, a series of powerful hydrothermal explosions and geyser eruptions occurred at Excelsior Geyser in the Midway Geyser Basin. Some of the explosions hurled large rocks as far as 50 feet (15 m).

Much larger hydrothermal explosions have occurred at Yellowstone in the recent geologic past. More than a dozen large hydrothermal-explosion craters formed between about 14,000 and 3,000 years ago, triggered by sudden changes in pressure of the hydrothermal system. Most of these craters are within the Yellowstone Caldera or along a north-south-trending zone between Norris and Mammoth Hot Springs.

The largest hydrothermal-explosion crater documented in the world is along the north edge of Yellowstone Lake in an embayment known as Mary Bay. This 1.5-mile (2.6 km)-diameter crater formed about 13,800 years ago and may have had several separate explosions in a short time interval. What specifically triggered these very large events is not firmly established, but earthquakes or a pressure release caused by melting glaciers or rapid changes in lake level may have been a significant factor.

These very large and violent hydrothermal explosions are independent of associated volcanism. None of the large hydrothermal events of the past 16,000 years has been followed by an eruption of magma. The deeper magma system appears to be unaffected even by spectacular steam explosions and crater excavations within the overlying hydrothermal system.

Explosive eruptions are best compared by recalculating the volume of erupted volcanic ash and pumice in terms of the original volume of molten rock (magma) released (shown in this diagram by orange spheres). On this basis, the 585 cubic miles (mi3) of magma that was erupted from Yellowstone 2.1 million years ago (Ma) was nearly 6,000 times greater than the volume released in the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, Washington, which killed 57 people and caused damage exceeding $1 billion. Even the 1815 Tambora, Indonesia, eruption—the largest on Earth in the past two centuries—was more than five times smaller than the smallest of Yellowstone’s three great prehistoric eruptions at 1.3 Map credit: USGS

Supervolcanoes Around The World

Around the world there are several other volcanic areas that can be considered “supervolcanoes”- Long Valley in eastern California, Toba in Indonesia, and Taupo in New Zealand. Other “supervolcanoes” would likely include the large caldera volcanoes of Japan, Indonesia.


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