From the beautiful lakes and views to the sweeping landscape of forests and wildlife, Yellowstone National Park is truly a sight to behold. But you’d never know just by looking at all of nature’s beauty within the confines of the park that every square inch of it could disappear in a matter of minutes.
Deep beneath the picturesque scenery of Yellowstone National Park lies the kind of sleeping giant that has haunted the nightmares of many. This beautiful park is, in fact, sheltering the Yellowstone super volcano that, if it erupts, could cover up to 250 cubic miles or more.
But don’t sound the alarms just yet. Let’s take a look at what the Yellowstone supervolcano actually is – then come and visit it for yourself.
History of Yellowstone’s Supervolcano
There are over 1500 volcanoes around the globe, but only 10 of those can be considered a supervolcano, including the Yellowstone volcano. The classification of a supervolcano doesn’t have to do with physical size; rather, a supervolcano is one that can produce more than 240 cubic miles of magma. Two out of the three major eruptions of the Yellowstone volcano fit the bill.
Since its formation over 2 million years ago, the Yellowstone volcano has experienced only three major eruptions. The second major blast, which was the smallest of the three, was hundreds of times larger than the eruption of Mt. St. Helen in 1980. The most recent one occurred about 640,000 years ago, forming what is now the Yellowstone Caldera. It exploded at supersonic speed with the force of a hydrogen bomb.
You can see the resulting Yellowstone Caldera from the Washburn Hot Springs overlook, just south of Dunraven Pass. Comprising the rim of the Yellowstone Caldera are Gibbon Falls, Lewis Falls, Lake Butte, and Flat Mountain Arm of Yellowstone Lake.
Since the last major blast, there has been minor volcanic activity, such as the eruption 174,000 years ago that subsequently formed the West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake, but nothing on the scale expected from a supervolcano.
Is it safe to visit Yellowstone? And where can I see evidence of past eruptions?
First things first: Is the Yellowstone volcano active, and will it erupt?
In short, yes, the Yellowstone volcano is active. Hydrothermal features within the park attest to the heat beneath the area. The park also experiences between 1,000 to 3,000 earthquakes each year, a further testament to the activity below ground.
In addition, the pressure from the magma has formed two resurgent domes within the Yellowstone Caldera. Magma may lie as little as 3-8 miles beneath the surface of the Sour Creek Dome, and 8-12 miles beneath the Mallard Lake Dome. As magma or hydrothermal fluids swell and subside, so do the domes and the caldera floor.
The Norris Geyser Basin, the hottest in the park, sits on an convergence of three faults. This hot spot has seen periodic large-scale disturbances that last a few weeks at a time, serving as more proof of the disturbances happening underground.
But don’t flip the panic mode switch just yet. Despite the reminders of the bubbling Yellowstone volcano activity below the surface, an eruption isn’t likely to occur anytime in the next 10,000 years.
Yellowstone Volcano Activity Forecasting
With the astronomical advancements of volcano monitoring technology, scientists believe a potential eruption would be detectable weeks, months, or potentially years before an explosion.
The National Park Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the University of Utah comprise the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory and routinely monitor an array of activities. A combination of 26 seismic stations, 16 GPS receivers, and 11 stream gauging stations repeatedly collect near real-time information, and other measures are in place to check the temperature, chemistry, and gas concentrations in major rivers for Yellowstone volcano activity. They also monitor things like ground deformation, seismic activity, and water flow.
Rest assured, that if science is wrong and an eruption does occur outside of predictions, the park has a plan in place to alert the public via news outlets, press releases and within the park.
The safest spot during an eruption, other than another state, is anywhere away from the direct flow of lava. The farther away from the volcano you can get, the safer you’ll be. The tricky part here is the impossibility to predict how explosive the eruption would be.
Where can I see traces of volcanic activity?
Though you’re unlikely to see the full wrath of the Yellowstone super volcano in your lifetime, you can enjoy the scenery that past volcanic activity has left behind:
- Sheepeater Cliffs – the exposed cliffs comprised of columnar basalt
- Obsidian Cliff – traces of lava flow
- Virginia Cascades – remnants of ash flow
- Gibbon Falls – near the caldera rim
- Tuff Cliff – traces of ash flow
- Lava Creek tuff 7. Firehole Canyon – traces of lava flow
- Lewis Falls – caldera rim
- Lake Butte – large-scale view of the caldera
- Washburn Hot Springs Overlook – large-scale view of the caldera
- Between Tower Fall and Tower Junction – columnar basalt
What would happen if the Yellowstone super volcano erupted?
Luckily for all of us, there’s only a 1 in 700,000 chance of the Yellowstone volcano erupting. Experts agree that, while an eruption isn’t impossible, no one will be likely to see it in the next 10,000 years.
It’s unnerving, even frightening, to think about the potential impact if the Yellowstone volcano were to erupt, even at half the force of its weakest super blast. But, for our lifetime at least, the worry isn’t necessary.
You don’t have to worry about Yellowstone being devoured by a volcano just yet, but why wait to visit? See Yellowstone this year — Brandin Iron is your base of operations for exploring all that the area has to offer.
Contact us today!