Yellowstone! A National Park on a Hot Spot

Module by: Judy McIlrath, University of South Florida

Cover Page by: Len Vacher and Denise Davis, University of South Florida

This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project


This Spreadsheets Across the Curriculum activity introduces Geology of National Parks students to Yellowstone National Park. The module takes a broad overview of volcanic features of the park, including the line of calderas along the up-drift hot spot trace, the mapped area of tuffs produced by their cataclysmic eruptions, and the hydrothermal features for which the park is so well known. Students calculate the rate that the North American Plate has been moving over the hot spot, the relative volume of the materials produced in the cataclysmic eruptions, their recurrence interval, and probability of eruption in any given year. The module ends with the Organic Act, and its dilemmas involving preservation, visitation (now 3 million visitors a year at Yellowstone National Park) and safety (where and when can visitors soak in thermal waters there).

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number NSF DUE-0836566. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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Learning Goals


Students will:

  • List evidence that Yellowstone is volcanically active.
  • See on a map that Yellowstone National Park is seismically active.
  • Calculate the rate the North American Plate is moving over the hot spot that is currently under Yellowstone National Park.
  • Convert units of length and volume.
  • Compare eruption volumes to numbers of Olympic-size swimming pools.
  • Calculate recurrence interval of cataclysmic eruptions and post-caldera lava flows; calculate probabilities from recurrence intervals. Consider the relation between probability and destructiveness.
  • Work with data from a column graph of annual visitation.

In the process the students will:

  • Be impressed that Yellowstone National Park has more than 10,000 hydrothermal features, about half of the world's total.
  • Understand how remnants of calderas along a hot-spot trace can be used to determine direction and approximate speed of plate movement.
  • Appreciate the immense size of caldera-forming eruptions.
  • Understand the definitions of recurrence interval and probability and the connection between them.
  • See from the numbers that less-destructive volcanism-related events are more likely to occur than larger cataclysmic events.
  • Learn about the National Park Service Organic Act and that management decisions are made for the safety of the visitors and park's well being.
  • Learn how the specific management decision of when bathers can have a hot soak in Gardner River where in mixes with its tributary Boiling River relates to stream discharge, which is monitored.

Context for Use

This module is designed for potential use in the Geology of National Parks service course at USF. The course is offered as an online course every semester. It includes readings from Parks and Plates, weekly quizzes based on that textbook, and weekly student activities designed to align the course with the University's general education requirements. This module is intended to be one of those activities, with the specific goal of meeting the gen-ed quantitative literacy dimension.

This module is one of four on Yellowstone NP, and introduces Yellowstone NP as a hot spot. From least to most challenging, and most general to most specific, the order of the four modules is: (1) this module, (2) "A Percentage Stroll through Norris Basin, Yellowstone National Park," (3) "Don't Mess with Old Faithful!" and (4) "Explore the Mean at Riverside Geyser."

Description and Teaching Materials


The module is a PowerPoint presentation with embedded spreadsheets. Click on the link below to download a copy of the module.

Optimal results are achieved with Microsoft Office 2007 or later; the module will function in earlier versions with slight cosmetic compromises. If the embedded spreadsheets are not visible, save the PowerPoint file to disk and open it from there.

The above PowerPoint presentation file is the student version of the module. It includes a template for students to use to complete the spreadsheet(s) and answer the end-of-module questions, and then turn in for grading.

An instructor version is available by request. The instructor version includes the completed spreadsheet. Send your request to Len Vacher ( by filling out and submitting the Instructor Module Request Form.

Teaching Notes and Tips

The module is constructed to be a stand-alone resource. It can be used as a homework assignment, lab activity, or as the basis of an interactive classroom activity. It was used as an out-of-class activity in a senior-elective course, Environmental Geology of the National Parks (for geology majors and nonmajors), during development of the module in Spring 2010, and as an out-of-class activity in Computational Geology (a QL course for geology majors) in Fall 2010 and Fall 2011. In general, the students considered this module to be one of the more elementary modules in the collection. It is now one of the modules that is rotated into the online introductory-level Geology of National Parks course.


There is a slide at the end of the presentation that contains end-of-module questions. The end-of-module questions can be used to examine student understanding and learning gains from the module. Pre/post test, pre/post test answer key, and answer key for end-of-module questions are at the end of the instructor version of the module.

References and Resources

Yellowstone Resources & Issues, 2009, NPS Division of Interpretation, Yellowstone National Park, Mammoth Hot Springs, Wyoming

USGS Fact Sheet 2005-3024

2003 Notable Changes in Thermal Activity at Norris Geyser Basin Provide Opportunity to Study Hydrothermal System

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Yellowstone Visitation Graph

US National Park Service (NPS)