Yellowstone National Park Volcano

Artist's impression of a what lies beneath the Yellowstone volcano. Credit: Hernán Cañellas/National Geographic

Yellowstone National Park is known for its geysers, but did you know that it is also the site of one of the world’s largest volcanoes? The same geologic activity that causes the multitude of geysers in the park is also responsible for the huge volcano located there. Scientists estimate that it is one of the largest volcanoes in the world, and so far it is the largest volcano in North America.

The volcano is 55 km by 72 km in size. Yellowstone’s volcano is in the class of super volcanoes due to its size. There is no exact definition for what qualifies as a super volcano; however, some scientists have defined it as a volcano with an eruption greater than 240 cubic miles.

Additionally, the Yellowstone Volcano does not look like the popular image of a volcano. Instead of being a conical mountain, it is a large depression in the ground like a cauldron. This type of volcanic feature is known as a caldera. It is very difficult to see the actual shape because it is covered with trees and has eroded over thousands of years.

Yellowstone National Park sits on top of a giant volcanic caldera, or an earthen cap that covers a huge reservoir of superhot liquid rock and poison gasses. Credit: IO9
Yellowstone National Park sits on top of a giant volcanic caldera, or an earthen cap that covers a huge reservoir of superhot liquid rock and poison gasses. Credit: IO9

The cause of the volcano is the hotspot on which Yellowstone is located. At a hotspot, molten mantle rock tends to rise toward the surface causing different geological activity. Volcanic eruptions from the hotspot also helped form the Snake River Plain.

Not only do volcanic eruptions occur around the Yellowstone region, but the area also experiences many earthquakes. The region experiences around 1000 to 2000 earthquakes each year, although most of them are usually quite small.

Despite the fact that the volcano has not erupted in hundreds of years, it is still active. This is a concern to scientists who have placed sensors around Yellowstone, so the volcano is continually monitored. The possible eruption of the Yellowstone Super volcano is of concern because of the enormous destruction it would cause. The last eruption was believed to be approximately 640,000 years ago.

Geologists estimate that 2 million years ago a cataclysmic series of volcanic eruptions in the Yellowsone Caldera was 2,500 times more powerful than the Mt. St. Helens eruption and perhaps was the largest, most violent volcanic eruption in the history of earth. Credit: Extreme Science
Geologists estimate that 2 million years ago a cataclysmic series of volcanic eruptions in the Yellowstone Caldera was perhaps the most violent volcanic eruption in the history of earth. Credit: Extreme Science

The eruption was on such a scale that it made the 1980 Mount St. Helen’s eruption look like nothing and result in damage and destruction many miles around. Scientists estimate that the other two eruptions from the Yellowstone Super volcano came over one and two million years ago. Since the volcano is still active, there is always a possibility it will once again erupt.

However, scientists do not anticipate that there will be another eruption in the near future, at least one on such a massive scale.

Universe Today has articles on Yellowstone eruption and Yellowstone Super Volcano.

For more information, try Yellowstone Volcano and Supervolcano.

Astronomy Cast has an episode on volcanoes hot and cold.


Yellowstone Eruption

Welded tuff at Yellowstone National Park.

Millions of people visit Yellowstone National Park every year, but how many think about the fact that they’re standing on top of one of the largest volcano calderas on Earth? Within the last 17 million years, there have been more than 100 large eruptions within the Yellowstone caldera, and thousands of smaller lava flows and steam explosions. In fact, the last great Yellowstone eruption happened about 70,000 years ago, and it only seems like a matter of time before it all happens again. Don’t panic, though, geologists monitor Yellowstone carefully, and they don’t think any large eruptions will happen soon.

The Yellowstone calderas measures 55 km wide by 72 km long, and rises to an elevation of 3,142 meters at its tallest point – Mount Sheridan. The constant uprise of the region created a plateau where there used to be a mountain range. These eruptions and uplift helped create the eastern Snake River Plain.

In the last 17 million years, there have been 142 caldera-forming eruptions in Yellowstone. This is an eruption large enough that a significant amount of lava, ash or rock were released – usually as an explosive eruption. Three of these eruptions have been classified as “super eruptions”, where up to 2,500 cubic km of ash and rock exploded out of the volcano. Just for comparison, Mount St. Helens, which erupted in 1980, only released 1 cubic km of material… so 2,500 times that in a single eruption. One of these super eruptions would have devastated most of North America, and cooled the climate of planet Earth for decades. The oldest of these Yellowstone eruptions happened 2.1 million years ago, which created the Huckleberry Ridge Tuff. The next oldest happened 1.3 million years ago, and the most recent super eruption happened about 640,000 years ago.

And since that last super eruption, there have been numerous smaller (but still powerful eruptions) non-explosive eruptions. The most recent lava flow has been estimated to have occurred about 70,000 years ago, and a steam explosion created a 5-km crater 13,800 years ago. The only eruptions that happen at Yellowstone today are the numerous geothermal vents around the caldera. These mix with water to create the famous geysers, like Old Faithful. These geysers indicate that Yellowstone is still a very active region, and more eruptions are likely.

Geologists are continuing to monitor the Yellowstone caldera, including the speed at this the caldera floor is rising up. Like Hawaii, Yellowstone is created by a single volcanic hotspot located under the Earth. The North American Plate is slowly moving over top of the hotspot, creating a long chain of calderas. The current caldera in Wyoming is the current location of the hotspot. Geologists have measured that the caldera floor is rising upwards at almost 7 cm per year. Fortunately, they find no evidence that we’re due for another super Yellowstone eruption. Of course, these things are difficult to predict.

We have written many articles about volcanoes for Universe Today. Here’s an article about about a Yellowstone-like formation on Mars, and an article about how extreme life in Yellowstone might offer hope for the search for life on Mars.

Want more resources on the Earth? Here’s a link to NASA’s Human Spaceflight page, and here’s NASA’s Visible Earth.

We have also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast about Earth, as part of our tour through the Solar System – Episode 51: Earth.

Source: Wikipedia