Sleeping Giant: Yellowstone Caldera evolution since 18 million years ago in images and maps


Yellowstone is currently a dormant volcano, with low levels of unrest. However, past volcanic eruptions that have taken place at Yellowstone National Park have been global disasters.

Today, scientists are trying to predict how this ticking time bomb will explode—or fizzle out.

Here some interesting images to explain how the Yellowstone supervolcano has evolved over time…

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Yellowstone Caldera

A sleeping giant is nestled in the western part of the United States. Though it stirs occasionally, it has not risen from slumber in nearly 70,000 years. But when it finally awakes it may roar and heave with unprecedented force.

yellowstone volcano evolution geology
A map of Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, shows the outline of the caldera of the massive Yellowstone supervolcano. The Yellowstone supervolcano last erupted about 640,000 years ago. By NGM MAPS

This giant is the “supervolcano” that lies beneath Yellowstone National Park, the wildlife and forest preserve positioned on a sprawling expanse that extends through the states of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. The volcano itself is actually located in northwestern Wyoming, which is where the bulk of Yellowstone is contained.

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Steam Vent at Yellowstone

Officials of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) say a massive eruption like the last one is an unlikely scenario. In fact, officials at the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory say the most likely activities that might take place in the future are hydrothermal explosions (eruptions of steam and hot water, rather than molten rock) or lava flows.

yellowstone volcano evolution geology
Fumaroles, often known as steam vents, are a familiar attraction at Yellowstone National Park. Steam vents are technically hot springs, but the small amount of water boils away before it reaches the surface causing extreme amounts of steam. Steam vents are known for their hissing sound, similar to that of a tea kettle. By DEBRA JONES

Although lava flows are a type of magmatic eruption, they are not as devastating as the caldera-forming explosions. Instead of instant destruction, lava flows slowly ooze out of the ground over a period of days, months, or even years.

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Old Faithful

They are also relatively rare. The last Yellowstone lava flows took place about 70,000 years ago. Yet even today, hikers can see evidence of those eruptions in the form of distinct rock layers along the park’s trails. Some evidence of younger lava flows can be found near the cliffs surrounding the Upper Geyser Basin, near Old Faithful.

yellowstone volcano evolution geology
Old Faithful, a geyser at Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, erupts about every 90 minutes. The actual time between eruptions can be anywhere between 20 minutes to almost two hours.

Today, Yellowstone sleeps, with scientists checking its every hiccup or cough in an effort to predict its next move. While the brewing force beneath the park has been restrained for thousands of years, Yellowstone’s dormancy does not mean it will not one day awaken. The question remains: When and with what force?

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Sleeping Giant

Thousands of years ago, the last blast from the Yellowstone supervolcano shot a fatal plume of hot ash, molten rock, and lethal gases thousands of meters into the air. A third of the continent was likely plunged into complete darkness. Pyroclastic flows (fast-moving currents of hot, dry rock fragments and gases) raced along the region at alarming speeds, burying or shattering anything in their path. Magma spewing out of the ground charred the once-charming landscape for kilometers.

yellowstone volcano evolution geology
A column of super-heated rock beneath Yellowstone National Park is illustrated in this diagram.

Some evidence of the last eruption can be found in the Yellowstone caldera itself, 50 kilometers (30 miles) wide and 70 kilometers (45 miles) long. The thick volcanic debris that remained after the eruption can still be seen in an area referred to as the Lava Creek Tuff.

Yellowstone Magma Plume

The ground above the Yellowstone supervolcano sits on a hot spot made of molten and semi-molten rock called magma. As magma feeds into a magma chamber, or reservoir situated about 6-10 kilometers (4-6 miles) beneath the park, the ground swells. When the magma begins to solidify and cool, the ground falls.

yellowstone volcano evolution geology
A new 3-D model shows the 45-mile-wide (72-kilometer-wide), 410-mile-deep (660-kilometer-deep) plume of hot, molten rock rising under Yellowstone’s supervolcano. IMAGE BY YELLOWSTONE VOLCANO OBSERVATORY, UNIVERSITY OF UTAH

Volcanologists, who have been measuring this activity since 1923, say the ground rose about 25 centimeters (9.8 inches) between 2004 and 2009. However, in 2010 the land began to subside.

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Line of Fire

yellowstone volcano evolution geology
The distinctive shape of Yellowstone’s magma chamber and its pattern of eruptions over millions of years are due to the geology of the Yellowstone hot spot. The hot spot, forming deep within Earth’s mantle, remains relatively stable while the North American continent shifts slowly to the southwest.

Yellowstone Eruptions

Examinations of the volcano’s distant past do provide something of a clue. Geologic evidence suggests that Yellowstone has produced three colossal eruptions within the past 2.1 million years. Volcanologists say the eruptions occurred at gaps of about 600,000 to 800,000 years. Evidence from the last big event, estimated to have to been about 640,000 years ago, is sprawled throughout the park and across thousands of kilometers of the surrounding landscape.

yellowstone volcano evolution geology
Yellowstone has endured three major caldera-forming eruptions within the past 2 million years. Volcanic debris from these eruptions has been discovered as far south as Louisiana and as far west as California. MAP BY ALEJANDRO TUMAS

Each of the previous eruptions spewed enormous amounts of volcanic ash, gas, magma, and other volcanic debris that covered most of the continental U.S. Some material has been found as far away as Louisiana.

After each of these eruptions, the Yellowstone supervolcano collapsed on itself, sucking in trees, mountains and everything else in the landscape. The depression formed by this phenomenon is called a caldera. (In fact, the Yellowstone supervolcano is also called the Yellowstone caldera.) A caldera-forming eruption would create a massive natural hazard in Yellowstone.

Scientists say the last Yellowstone eruption was 1,000 times greater than the notorious 1980 Mt. Saint Helens eruption that killed 56 people and thousands of animals, and scorched hundreds of square kilometers of land in Washington and Oregon.

Meanwhile, the level of recent underground activity fuels speculation about the intensity of an eruption. Within the past decade, the volcano has continued to rise at the fastest rate ever recorded.

Yellowstone also averages between 1,000 and 3,000 earthquakes a year. Most are virtually unnoticeable, with a magnitude of three or less. Still, these quakes give scientists insight into just how fast the magma chamber beneath the park is filling up. An increase in the shaking and rattling throughout the park might indicate a fresh batch of magma was recently fed into the reservoir.

Even with the increase in temblors, scientists don’t think the rumblings in the magma chamber pose a threat anytime soon. However, since people haven’t been around to analyze absolutely everything that happens in Yellowstone, it’s hard to predict what exactly is going on, making it difficult for geologists to predict Yellowstone’s next move. So always be ready!!! [Nat Geo] is now running ad-free CLICK HERE TO SUPPORT MY WORK…

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