Exploring the Yellowstone Geoecosystem
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Integrating Research and Education > Yellowstone > Compelling Research Questions > Is there a present volcanic hazard?

Is there a present volcanic hazard?

Yellowstone Lake

The volcanic processes that created the Yellowstone Geoecosystem are still active. One way that geoscientists determine the likelihood of a certain type of eruption occurring is by documenting how often they have occurred in the past (i.e. the recurrence interval). We will explore the types of eruptions that Yellowstone is likely to produce and the probability of their occurrence. In this self-guided exercise, we will explore only one of a number of possible pathways to answer the question.



Use the supplied resources to answer the following questions:

Let's explore Yellowstone's volcanic history.


  • Exploration and Discovery in Yellowstone Lake: Results from High-resolution Sonar Imaging, Seismic Reflection Profiling, and Submersible Studies. This journal article presents discoveries from multi-beam sonar mapping and seismic reflection surveys of Yellowstone Lake. It provides new insight into the extent of post-collapse volcanism and active hydrothermal processes occurring in a large lake environment above a large magma chamber. The article contains extensive text, photos, maps, and diagrams to support findings. (more info)
  • Frequently Asked Questions about Recent Findings at Yellowstone Lake. This U.S. Geological Survey website answers the most commonly asked questions regarding reports that a bulge beneath Yellowstone Lake may represent a hazard for residents or visitors to the area. In addition, it provides a new high-resolution bathymetric relief map of Yellowstone Lake. References, and some direct links, to the original research materials are provided. (more info)
  • Geologic Map of the Yellowstone Plateau Area. This geologic map shows rock formations, surficial deposits, faults, calderas, lava flows, and other geologic features of interest. A separate small map shows rhyolite flows. (more info)
  • Yellowstone Volcano Observatory. This source is a clearinghouse of scientific information about the Yellowstone volcanic system. Topics include recent seismic and thermal activity, volcanic history, references and maps, a photo gallery, and FAQs. This website contains both general information that would be useful for anyone that is seeking information on the Yellowstone volcanic system, as well as more specific resources for geology students or teachers. (more info)
  1. What type of large-scale, catastrophic eruption has occurred three times?
  2. What is the average time between these three eruptions?
  3. When was the last time that one of these events happened?
  4. What type of non-explosive eruption has covered most of the Yellowstone Plateau?
  5. When was the last time that one of these events happened?
  6. What type of relatively small-scale, explosive event has occurred numerous times in and around Yellowstone Lake during the last 10,000 years?
  7. When was the last time that one of these events happened?

Now that we know the basics of Yellowstone's volcanic past, let's explore the present.


  • A Living, Breathing Caldera. This report describes the crustal deformation of the Yellowstone Hotspot from 1923 to 1995. Measurements show that the Yellowstone Caldera underwent rapid uplift from 1923 to 1985; this was followed by ten years of subsidence. The report also summarizes the University of Utah's research program to monitor the caldera using GPS stations. Information on surrounding fault zones is also provided. (more info)
  • Frequently Asked Questions about Recent Findings at Yellowstone Lake. This U.S. Geological Survey website answers the most commonly asked questions regarding reports that a bulge beneath Yellowstone Lake may represent a hazard for residents or visitors to the area. In addition, it provides a new high-resolution bathymetric relief map of Yellowstone Lake. References, and some direct links, to the original research materials are provided. (more info)
  • Geologic Overview of a Bison-Carcass Site at Norris Geyser Basin, March 2004. This Yellowstone National Park report describes the conditions that apparently caused the death of five bison near the Norris Geyser Basin. The bison appear to have died from hydrogen sulfide and/or carbon dioxide emitted from nearby gas vents. This PDF file contains text, data, and photographs that explain the Park scientist's findings. (more info)
  • Notable Changes in Thermal Activity at Norris Geyser Basin Provide Opportunity to Study Hydrothermal System. This website gives an overview of the changes in many hydrothermal features in the Norris geyser basin that began in July 2003. To monitor the increased hydrothermal activity, the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory installed a temporary monitoring network of seismographs, Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers, and temperature data loggers. Text, photos, data, and references show their findings. This website would be useful for anyone with a basic knowledge in earth science that is interested in recent developments in Yellowstone's hydrothermal system. (more info)
  • Yellowstone National Park Region Seismicity Maps. This University of Utah website provides numerous maps of the Yellowstone National Park area that show the location and magnitude of historical earthquakes. Time intervals include the previous day, week, 30-days, 90-days, year, 1973 to present, 1973-1981, and 1983 to present. The maps also include latitude and longitude, park boundary, and fault information. (more info)
  • Velocity structure of the Yellowstone hot spot from teleseismic tomography: Evidence for an upper mantle plume. [Waite et al, 2006] plume research (citation and description)
  1. Approximately how many earthquakes have occurred in the last week in Yellowstone National Park?
  2. Are earthquakes in the Yellowstone related to crustal deformation and volcanism?
  3. What areas have had the greatest deformation, when did it happen, and how much displacement was there?
  4. Are catastrophic volcanic eruptions likely to happen without notice?
  5. Why, or why not?
  6. Does Yellowstone emit toxic gases?
  7. If so, what kind?

Based on the previous resources and your findings so far, attempt to predict Yellowstone's volcanic future.

  1. What is the likelihood of caldera-forming event in the next 10,000 years (probable/possible/unlikely)?
  2. What is the likelihood of a lava flow event in the next 10,000 years (probable/possible/unlikely)?
  3. What is the likelihood of a hydrothermal explosion in the next 10,000 years (probable/possible/unlikely)?

Now, answer the question to the best of your abilities: Is there a present volcanic hazard?


Summary


As you probably discovered, there is no simple answer to the question, "Is there a present volcanic hazard?" However, a geologic hazard assessment of Yellowstone Geoecosystem is underway by the Yellowstone Volcanic Observatory. The assessment will evaluate the known and potential hazards at Yellowstone from earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and hydrothermal explosions.



  • Current Activity at the Yellowstone Volcanic System. This website provides a monthly summary of current geologic events that relate to the Yellowstone volcanic system. The summary includes information about earthquakes, hydrothermal activity, and other events of interest. Links are provided for more in-depth information. (more info)
  • Geologic Map of the Island Park Area, Yellowstone Region. This website contains a geologic map of the Island Park, Idaho area. The map shows rocks, deposits, faults, calderas, flows, and other geologic features of interest. (more info)
  • Seismic Evidence for Fluid Migration Accompanying Subsidence of the Yellowstone Caldera. This report describes the largest earthquake swarm in Yellowstone National Park's recorded history. For a little over 3 months beginning in October 1985, the swarm contained more than 3000 earthquakes with a magnitude greater than 5. The swarm had unusual characteristics that could be explained by the migration of hydrothermal fluids. Maps and numerous graphs support the text. (more info)
  • Some Points of Volcanic Interest in Yellowstone National Park. This U.S. Geological Survey website highlights a few of the many interesting volcanic features related to the Yellowstone volcanic system. Highlighted features include the Obsidian Cliffs, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Sheepeater Cliffs, and the Mesa Falls ash-flow tuff. An oblique overview map of the Yellowstone area shows the location of these features in relation to other prominent locations around the park. (more info)
  • The Quaternary and Pliocene Yellowstone Plateau Volcanic Field of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. This U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper is aimed at constructing a volcanic history of the Yellowstone Plateau region, interpreting important volcanic mechanisms, and seeking clues to deeper-seated processes that gave rise to the volcanic activity. Research for this paper spanned four decades and involved areal geologic mapping and the delineation of volcanic stratigraphy and significant structural relations. It includes text, maps, photographs, diagrams, and chemical analysis data. (more info)
  • The Yellowstone-Teton Epicenter. This University of Utah website provides an overview of the history and present conditions of the Yellowstone hotspot. Topics include the track of the hotspot, tectonics, seismicity, history and global significance of major events, and the physical properties of the modern volcanic system. Numerous maps, graphs, and other figures support the text. (more info)
  • Volcanic History of the Yellowstone Plateau Volcanic Field. This U.S. Geological Survey website gives an overview of Yellowstone volcanism. Text, numerous photos, tables, a map, and a volcanic term glossary explain the three major volcanic cycles that created the landscape that we call Yellowstone. (more info)
  • Volcano Hazards Fact Sheet: Yellowstone - Restless Volcanic Giant. This U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report summarizes the Yellowstone volcanic system and its associated hazards. Scientists are studying the Yellowstone region to assess the potential hazards from future earthquakes and eruptions and to provide warning of increased unrest. The report includes text, several maps, and data plots. Topics include Yellowstone's roots, the Yellowstone caldera, contemporary unrest, reasons to worry, and additional readings. (more info)
  • Yellowstone-Snake-River-Plain GPS Network. This clearinghouse of GPS information focuses on the overall strain and deformation field of the Yellowstone and Snake River Plain region. (more info)

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