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Volcanic History Questions

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How often do volcanic eruptions occur at Yellowstone?

Three extremely large explosive eruptions have occurred at Yellowstone in the past 2.1 million years with a recurrence interval of about 600,000 to 800,000 years. More frequent eruptions of basalt and rhyolite lava flows have occurred before and after the large caldera-forming events. For example, scientists have identified about 30 different rhyolite lava flows that erupted after the most recent caldera eruptions, about 640,000 years ago, from vents inside the caldera. The most recent was about 70,000 years ago. Many of these eruptions were separated in time by several tens of thousandsof years. Because the evidence of earlier eruptions may have been either buried or destroyed, we do not really know how often the volcano has actually erupted.

How many caldera-forming eruptions have occurred from the long-lived hotspot that is currently beneath Yellowstone?

Many eruptive units found along the path of the Yellowstone hotspot have been dated, but only a few of them represent large caldera-forming eruptions. At least five volcanic fields centered on large caldera complexes have been identified. Some of these caldera complexes erupted climatically more than once; probably 15 to 20 caldera-forming eruptions have occurred along the hotspot as it left a trail from western Idaho to Yellowstone within the past 16.5 million years.

How many giant eruptions have occurred in the Yellowstone National Park region and how large were they?

Volcanic activity began in the Yellowstone National Park region a little before about 2 million years ago. Molten rock ( magma) rising from deep within the Earth produced three cataclysmic eruptions more powerful than any in the world's recorded history. The first caldera-forming eruption occurred about 2.1 million years ago. The eruptive blast removed so much magma from its subsurface storage reservoir that the ground above it collapsed into the magma chamber and left a gigantic depression in the ground- a hole larger than the state of Rhode Island. The huge crater, known as a caldera, measured as much as 80 kilometers long, 65 kilometers wide, and hundreds of meters deep, extending from outside of Yellowstone National Park into the central area of the Park (Figure 1).

Later, activity shifted to a smaller region within the Island Park area of eastern Idaho, just southwest of Yellowstone National Park, and produced another large caldera-forming eruption 1.3 million years ago. Subsequent activity has been focused within the area of the National Park, and another huge eruption 640,000 years ago formed the Yellowstone caldera as we now see it.

The three caldera-forming eruptions, respectively, were about 2,500, 280, and 1,000 times larger than the May 18, 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens in Washington State. Together, the three catastrophic eruptions expelled enough ash and lava to fill the Grand Canyon.

In addition to the three climactic eruptions, activity associated with each of the three caldera cycles produced dozens or even hundreds of smaller eruptions that produced both lava and pyroclastic materials.

How large were the giant eruptions in the Yellowstone National Park region in comparison to other large historic eruptions?

Figure 2 shows that the three largest Yellowstone eruptions emitted much more material than the eruptions of Mount St. Helens (1980), Mount Pinatubo (1991), Krakatau (1883), Mount Mazama (7,600 years ago), and Tambora (1815).

When was the last time there was volcanism at Yellowstone?

The most recent volcanic activity consisted of rhyolitic lava flows that erupted approximately 70,000 years ago. The largest of these flows formed the Pitchstone Plateau in southwestern Yellowstone National Park.

How much volcanic activity has there been at Yellowstone since the most recent giant eruption?

Since the most recent giant caldera-forming eruption, 640,000 years ago, at least 30 smaller but still destructive volcanic eruptions have occurred at Yellowstone. Some of the eruptions were approximately the size of the devastating 1991 Pinatubo eruption in the Philippines, and several were much larger.

What was the extent of ash deposition from the largest Yellowstone eruptions?

During the three giant caldera-forming eruptions that occurred between 2.1 million and 640,000 years ago, tiny particles of volcanic debris (volcanic ash) covered much of the western half of North America, likely a third of a meter deep several hundred kilometers from Yellowstone and several centimeters thick farther away (Figure 3). Wind carried sulfur aerosol and the lightest ash particles around the planet and likely caused a notable decrease in temperatures around the globe.

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Last modification: Friday, 07-Feb-2003 15:07:04 EST (GCM)