Published on Apr 5, 2014
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A look at Yellowstone National Park and the caldera super volcano beneath it that is pushing up the land and long overdue for what could be a titanic eruption.
The Yellowstone Caldera is the volcanic caldera and supervolcano located in Yellowstone National Park in the United States, sometimes referred to as the Yellowstone Supervolcano. The caldera is located in the northwest corner of Wyoming, in which the vast majority of the park is contained. The major features of the caldera measure about 34 by 45 miles (55 by 72 km). The caldera formed during the last of three supereruptions over the past 2.1 million years. First came the Huckleberry Ridge eruption 2.1 million years ago, which created the Island Park Caldera and the Huckleberry Ridge Tuff. Next came the Mesa Falls eruption 1.3 million years ago, which created the Henry’s Fork Caldera and the Mesa Falls Tuff. Finally came the Lava Creek eruption 640,000 years ago, which created the Yellowstone Caldera and the Lava Creek Tuff.
Yellowstone is a new volcano that was created during a supereruption that took place 640,000 years ago. The caldera lies over a hotspot where light, hot, molten rock from the mantle rises toward the surface. While the Yellowstone hotspot is now under the Yellowstone Plateau, it previously helped create the eastern Snake River Plain (to the west of Yellowstone) through a series of huge volcanic eruptions. The hotspot appears to move across terrain in the east-northeast direction, but in fact the hotspot is much deeper than terrain and remains stationary while the North American Plate moves west-southwest over it.
Over the past 18 million years or so, this hotspot has generated a succession of violent eruptions and less violent floods of basaltic lava. Together these eruptions have helped create the eastern part of the Snake River Plain from a once-mountainous region. At least a dozen of these eruptions were so massive that they are classified as supereruptions. Volcanic eruptions sometimes empty their stores of magma so swiftly that they cause the overlying land to collapse into the emptied magma chamber, forming a geographic depression called a caldera. Calderas formed from explosive supereruptions can be as wide and deep as mid- to large-sized lakes and can be responsible for destroying broad swaths of mountain ranges.
The oldest identified caldera remnant straddles the border near McDermitt, Nevada-Oregon, although there are volcaniclastic piles and arcuate faults that define caldera complexes more than 60 km (37 mi) in diameter in the Carmacks Group of southwest-central Yukon, Canada, which is interpreted to have formed 70 million years ago by the Yellowstone hotspot. Progressively younger caldera remnants, most grouped in several overlapping volcanic fields, extend from the Nevada-Oregon border through the eastern Snake River Plain and terminate in the Yellowstone Plateau. One such caldera, the Bruneau-Jarbidge caldera in southern Idaho, was formed between 10 and 12 million years ago, and the event dropped ash to a depth of one foot (30 cm) 1,000 miles (1,600 km) away in northeastern Nebraska and killed large herds of rhinoceros, camel, and other animals at Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park. Within the past 17 million years, 142 or more caldera-forming eruptions have occurred from the Yellowstone hotspot.
The loosely defined term ‘supervolcano’ has been used to describe volcanic fields that produce exceptionally large volcanic eruptions. Thus defined, the Yellowstone Supervolcano is the volcanic field which produced the latest three supereruptions from the Yellowstone hotspot; it also produced one additional smaller eruption, thereby creating West Thumb Lake 174,000 years ago. The three super eruptions occurred 2.1 million, 1.3 million, and 640,000 years ago, forming the Island Park Caldera, the Henry’s Fork Caldera, and Yellowstone calderas, respectively. The Island Park Caldera supereruption (2.1 million years ago), which produced the Huckleberry Ridge Tuff, was the largest and produced 2,500 times as much ash as the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption. The next biggest supereruption formed the Yellowstone Caldera (640,000 years ago) and produced the Lava Creek Tuff. The Henry’s Fork Caldera (1.2 million years ago) produced the smaller Mesa Falls Tuff but is the only caldera from the Snake River Plain-Yellowstone (SRP-Y) hotspot that is plainly visible today.