Yellowstone Supervolcano May Wake Up Sooner Than We Thought

SCIENCE

A new study of ancient ash suggests the “sleeping giant” could develop the conditions needed to blow in a span of mere decades. (Nat Geo News)

What is the Yellowstone supervolcano? Use our super resource (including downloadable maps, videos, and photos) to learn more.

No worries, no lava. Those gorgeous arabesques are mineral deposits surrounding Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Spring.
Photograph by Michael Nichols, National Geographic

Discussion Ideas

 

  • Where are the world’s supervolcanoes?

 

  • Volcanologists estimate supereruptions happen about every 100,000 years. When was the last time the world experienced the eruption of a supervolcano?
    • About 26,500 years ago, the Oruanui eruption sent about 1,170 cubic kilometers (281 cubic miles) of ejecta into the atmosphere.
      • The Oruanui eruption is associated with the still-very-active Taupo Volcanic Zone of the North Island of New Zealand. The Taupo supervolcano is part of a back-arc basin, a depression on the ocean floor formed as an ocean trench created by subduction (here, the Tonga Trench) migrates “backward” toward the overriding plate. The Tonga Trench, to the northeast of New Zealand, is created as the Pacific plate is subducted beneath both the Tonga and Kermadec plates. (FYI, because subduction is our favorite geologic process: that subduction is happening fast—24 centimeters (9.4 inches) a year. That’s the fastest plate velocity on Earth!)

 

CLICK TO ENLARGE! The gargantuan, superheated plume of rock under Yellowstone fuels the Earth’s largest collection of hydrothermal features.
Illustration by Manuel Canales, National Geographic

  • Why do volcanologists and other scientists think the Yellowstone supervolcano may erupt sooner than we thought?
    • A new analysis of crystals from past eruptions shows that the volcano’s massive magma chamber can refill much, much faster than previously thought. According to Nat Geo, “critical changes in temperature and composition built up in a matter of decades. Until now, geologists had thought it would take centuries for the supervolcano to make that transition.”

 

CLICK TO ENLARGE! The distinctive shape of Yellowstone’s magma chamber and its pattern of eruptions over millions of years are due to the geology of the Yellowstone hot spot. The hot spot, forming deep within Earth’s mantle, remains relatively stable while the North American continent shifts slowly to the southwest.
Map by Alejandro Tumas

 

Yellowstone has endured three major eruptions within the past two million years. Volcanic debris from these eruptions has been discovered as far south as Louisiana and as far west as California.
Map by Alejandro Tumas, National Geographic

  • Previous eruptions at Yellowstone spewed tons of volcanic debris that covered most of the continental U.S. Should we be worried about the new research predicting a possible earlier eruption?
    • Not yet. Yellowstone is still considered dormant, and is one of the best-monitored volcanoes in the world. Sensors and satellites are constantly looking for changes in Yellowstone’s geology, and right now, the supervolcano does not seem to pose a threat. Learn more about how the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory is keeping track of its “sleeping giant” with our video series here, here, and here.

 

The weird geologic features of Yellowstone are influenced by a big column of super-heated rock—the supervolcano’s magma plume.
Illustration by Hernan Canellas, National Geographic

 

Geologic features influenced by the supervolcano include vents, mud pots, mineral pools, hot springs, and geysers like Steep Cone Geyser here.
Photograph by Michael Nichols, National Geographic

 

TEACHERS TOOLKIT TEXT SET

Nat Geo: Yellowstone Supervolcano May Rumble to Life Faster Than Thought

Nat Geo: When a Sleeping Giant Awakes

Nat Geo: Yellowstone Volcano Observatory (second video) (third video)

Nat Geo: What is a hot spot?

Nat Geo: What is a volcano?

One response to “Yellowstone Supervolcano May Wake Up Sooner Than We Thought

  1. Pingback: Sharing some interesting graphics on Yellowstone volcano | The Fenn Diagrams·

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