New research reveals complex nature of Yellowstone's last super-eruption

New research reveals Yellowstone's last super-eruption was a series of successive eruptions, providing insights into its complex nature.
Kavita Verma
Aerial view of the Yellowstone National Park's Grand Prismatic Spring is located within the Yellowstone Caldera.
Aerial view of the Yellowstone National Park's Grand Prismatic Spring is located within the Yellowstone Caldera.

iStock/Ajith Kumar  

Yellowstone's most recent super-eruption, which happened 631,000 years ago, has been better-understood thanks to recent studies by the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory of the U.S. Geological Survey. The study contends that the catastrophic event was not a single, enormous explosion but rather a sequence of eruptions or many vents releasing volcanic material quickly one after the other.

The findings, which are described in the observatory's 2022 Annual Report, were made public on May 4 and show that the development of the Yellowstone Caldera, a sizable crater left after a volcano collapsed, was significantly more complex than previously thought. These discoveries shed important light on one of the greatest volcanic systems in the world's geological past and present.

Uncovering the phased nature of Yellowstone's super-eruptions

Researchers studying the history of the Yellowstone Caldera have found that two of the three super-eruptions that occurred during the last three million years, Lava Creek and Huckleberry Ridge Tuff, both exhibited a phased nature. 

The eruption at Lava Creek, which created the Yellowstone Caldera, did not happen suddenly. Deposits in the Sour Creek Dome region east of the national park suggest that it was preceded by at least one eruption.

In order to better comprehend the eruption timing, additional research was carried out in 2022 at Sour Creek Dome, including remapping and sample collection. Four previously undiscovered ignimbrite units have been found at the site by the study team, led by Michael Poland, scientist-in-charge at the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory, which suggests several eruptive pulses. 

They've also found two possible eruptive vents that could have been the places where the volcanic rocks came from. Additionally, it was discovered that the Huckleberry Ridge Tuff eruption, which ejected more than 240 cubic miles (1,000 cubic kilometers) of material, was a phased event. 

Three distinct eruptions with various time intervals between them were identified by geological analysis at the eruption site. These discoveries help us comprehend the volcanic activity at Yellowstone and how it might affect upcoming eruptions. 

Though it is not anticipated that the volcano will erupt anytime soon, the identification of a pattern that is comparable to that of the Lava Creek and Huckleberry Ridge Tuff eruptions raises the possibility that significant caldera-forming events at Yellowstone may involve several phases.

The future plans

The newly identified units and their limits will be thoroughly examined in the future by scientists at the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory. With these investigations, scientists want to paint a fuller picture of the Lava Creek eruption and possibly identify the causes behind it.

Although Yellowstone's volcanic activity is still unpredictable, these fresh perceptions of the intricate nature of super-eruptions advance our understanding of the volcanic system and improve our capacity to anticipate and lessen the effects of probable future eruptions.

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