The Geology of Yellowstone National Park

There are quite a few geological wonders in the world, but none are quite as unique as Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone was established as the first National Park due to its fascinating geologic nature. There are geysers, hot springs, mud pots, and steam vents that makeup Yellowstone, as well as other wonders like the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River.

Among these geologic characteristics, the most interesting, and potentially dangerous, is the volcanic nature of Yellowstone. While the volcano hasn’t seen activity in over 180,000 years, scientists are keeping a close eye on the volcanic activity for any abnormalities. The Yellowstone Volcano is known as a supervolcano. A supervolcano has had an eruption of over 1,000 cubic kilometers, or 240 cubic meters, in its past. Yellowstone had this kind of eruption over 2.1 million years ago.

Volcanic History of Yellowstone

Yellowstone’s history is rich with geologic events. Over the past 2 million years, Yellowstone experienced constant shifts in the plate tectonics that shifted the land over the hot spot it resides on today. As the earth’s crust shifted over a magma chamber, aka a hot spot, Yellowstone experienced a powerful eruption 2.1 million years ago and officially became an active volcano.

These eruptions helped shape Yellowstone’s landscape along with flowing lava, caldera-forming events, and regular earthquakes. Yellowstone has experienced a few volcanic events over its history, but the most recent ones shaped the land and these effects are still visible today. Over 640,000 years ago, an eruption left behind an enormous caldera that was created when a magma chamber collapsed. Even though this caldera has been filled by lava flows over Yellowstone’s history, visitors can still see the evidence of this caldera’s rim at Lewis Falls to the south and the long cliff to the west of Old Faithful running north towards the Madison River.

The most recent eruption occurred about 180,000 years ago and formed the West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake. Even though we haven’t seen any lava flow in Yellowstone for about 70,000 years, the volcano is still active under the ground of Yellowstone.

While active volcanos pose a threat, the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory keeps a close eye on any changes that may occur with the volcano. There are 26 seismic stations around the park with 11 GPS receivers and 11 stream gauge monitoring sites. With these tools, scientists can study the current activity of the volcano and any shifts in the land. Scientists have discovered that the pressure from the active magma chamber has created a noticeable shift in the ground, and they have seen a chance in the elevation in certain areas of Yellowstone. The Sour Creek Dome had lifted 6.7 inches between 2004 and 2007. These shifts in the ground’s elevation have caused a noticeable change, especially with Yellowstone Lake. The water was pushed to the south, drowning the shoreline.

Monitoring the Activity

Scientists are constantly monitoring the activity in Yellowstone to help protect the public from any dangerous activity. Scientists use GPS technology, seismic stations, and stream gauge monitoring sites to help monitor seismic activity, volcanic gas concentrations, geothermal activity, and ground deformation in real-time. This information helps inform scientists of the many earthquakes that affect Yellowstone. It’s normal for Yellowstone to experience 1 to 3 thousand earthquake events per year.

As time goes on, technology continues to improve, and scientists can improve their observations of Yellowstone National Park with the new advanced technology that is being created.

Another useful strategy to gain information about Yellowstone is the process of logging data. A group of scientists gathered geologic and geochemical data from the boreholes they drilled in Yellowstone National Park in 2007 and 2008. They recorded temperatures to assess thermal gradients in the holes and they collected water samples to examine how the water quality changed with depth. Luckily, this kind of data can easily be viewed with software that can help visualize the data retrieved. CoreCAD is a software developed by and for geologists. It’s meant to improve productivity by allowing direct input of core descriptions into a digital interface. To learn more about this helpful software, visit

Projects like these can help scientists learn more about Yellowstone and the changes Yellowstone is actively going through. This is especially important when public safety is at risk. By monitoring activity levels and noticing different trends, scientists can determine what is considered normal for Yellowstone, such as the number of earthquakes Yellowstone experiences each year and what may be abnormal. Any abnormality will help scientists get a head start in warning the public about any event that may affect them.

Current Geology

Yellowstone is known for the geysers spread across the National Park, but there are many different types of environments in Yellowstone that show off its geology.

The limestone terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs reflect the region’s subsurface volcanic activity. The northern section of the park, between Mammoth Hot Springs and the Tower-Roosevelt region, has mountains, forests, and a broad expanse of river valleys that were created by ice floes. The different valleys in Yellowstone, like Lamar, Pelican, and Hayden Valleys, reflect the geologic beauty of Yellowstone. Lamar Valley was covered by glaciers in Yellowstone’s history. Today, this valley has glacial ponds scattered around the land. Pelican and Hayden Valleys are two of the largest ancient lake beds in the park and have open meadows with an abundance of plant life.

Though Yellowstone National Park has a very long history that has led it to be the supervolcano it is today, scientists still have so much to learn about the changes and features of Yellowstone. With the help of different seismic sensors, GPS, and logging tools, scientists can continue to study the geologic wonder that is Yellowstone National Park. Visitors can also visit the park and see beautiful geologic wonders like Lamar Valley, the Mammoth Hot Springs, and the Pelican and Hayden Valleys. These regions are just the beginning of the wide expanse that makes up Yellowstone National Park.

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Christophe Rude

Christophe Rude

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