The likelihood of a volcanic supereruption from Yellowstone, or any other location on Earth, remains very low in any given year, yet the U.S. Geological Survey is frequently asked about the likely thickness and distribution of ash deposits if Yellowstone were to erupt. This prompted USGS scientists to use a new computer model called Ash3D to simulate the distribution of volcanic ash from a hypothetical large explosive eruption at Yellowstone. A research paper explaining the results was published in Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems on August 27, 2014, and we have developed some FAQ to help explain the background to this study.
The researchers discovered that during very large volcanic eruptions, ash transport is dominated by a rapidly expanding umbrella cloud that results in significant distribution of ash upwind from the volcanic vent. "In essence, the eruption makes its own winds that can overcome the prevailing westerlies that normally dominate weather patterns in the United States," explained USGS geologist Larry Mastin, first author on the manuscript and co-developer of the computer model. "This helps explain the distribution from large Yellowstone eruptions of the past, where considerable amounts of ash reached the west coast." The authors also note that a fraction of an inch or less of ash is likely to be deposited at distances further than 1500 miles, such as on the east and west coasts of the United States. To learn more, please read our Frequently Asked Questions about the model and its application to Yellowstone.
Though we love doing research at YVO, we prefer it when the research is on topics geological rather than the origin of false rumors. Nevertheless, we have received enough concerned emails and phone calls that we've spent some time tracking down a few of the statements made on various "alternative Internet news sources."
1) First, everyone should know that geological activity, including earthquakes and ground uplift/subsidence is well within historical norms and seismicity is actually a bit low at present.
2) Concern over road closures is much overblown. There's been one road closure of a small side road – just over three miles long – that was closed for two days. As one can imagine, it is not easy to maintain roads that pass over thermal areas where ground temperatures can approach those of boiling water. Roads at Yellowstone often need repair because of damage by thermal features as well as extreme cold winter conditions.
3) The park has not been evacuated. This one is pretty easy to verify by everyone. If the Old Faithful webcam shows people, or if news articles are coming out about a hobbyist's remote control helicopter crashing into a hot spring, Yellowstone is certainly open for business.
4) No volcanologists have stated that Yellowstone is likely to erupt this week, this month or this year. In one recent article, a name was attributed to a "senior volcanologist", but that person does not appear to exist, and a geologist with that name assures us that he did not supply any quotes regarding Yellowstone.
5) Finally, we note that those who've kept track of Yellowstone over the past decade or so, have seen a constant stream of "predictions" regarding imminent eruptions at Yellowstone. Many have had specific dates in mind, none had a scientific basis, and none have come true.
We will continue to provide updates on geological activity at Yellowstone, and educational materials to help understand the science around Yellowstone monitoring.
Virtually everything known about Yellowstone's spectacular volcanic past comes from the scientists who work at this observatory, at all our eight member agencies. We're the ones who mapped the deposits, figured out the ages of the eruptions, measured the gases, located the earthquakes, and tracked the ground movement. A few of us have been doing it for over forty years. We will continue to help you understand what's happening at Yellowstone now, and what's likely to happen in the future.
How do we know what's beneath Yellowstone, and how can we image the shallow magma? Seismologists at the University of Utah (a YVO member agency) and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology undertook a study to image the Yellowstone magma reservoir through a technique called seismic tomography. Using improved methods and data from thousands of earthquakes; they discovered that the magma reservoir is much larger than inferred in previous studies. Read our website article to find out how the study was conducted and what they discovered. The complete results from this new approach are published in the Journal Geophysical Research Letters.
Scientists from the University of Utah – a YVO partner agency – recently presented new research at the Fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco that suggests that the size of the magma body beneath Yellowstone is significantly larger than had been thought. Previous similar studies had underestimated the size of the magma body because of insufficient instrumentation. Over the past decade, improvements to the Yellowstone monitoring network has increased the number and quality of the instruments deployed. This new research takes advantage of these upgrades, which will continue to pay dividends for years to come.
The UU researchers, in collaboration with a scientist from the Swiss Seismological Service in Zurich, used a method called seismic tomography to create an improved image of the magmatic system beneath Yellowstone. One should not think of Yellowstone's magma reservoir as a big cavern full of churning lava. Rather, the reservoir is distributed throughout a porous, sponge-like body of otherwise solid rock, with the amount of liquid rock (melt) varying from place to place. Because seismic waves slow down when traveling through liquids, seismic tomography can be used to map out these variations. The new research shows that while the magma reservoir is bigger than we thought, the proportion of melt to solid rock (estimated at <10-15%) is similar to previous reports and appears to remain way too low for a giant eruption.
Although fascinating, the new findings do not imply increased geologic hazards at Yellowstone, and certainly do not increase the chances of a "supereruption" in the near future. Contrary to some media reports, Yellowstone is not "overdue" for a supereruption. Indeed, it is quite possible that such an eruption will never again occur from the Yellowstone region. Scientist agree that smaller eruptions are likely in the future, but the probability of ANY sort of eruption at Yellowstone still remains very low over the next 10 to 100 years.
YVO scientists from organizations around the country continually monitor geologic conditions at Yellowstone. At present those conditions are normal and there is no heightened concern for public safety. Should conditions change, an established alert system will quickly notify public officials, the general public, and the media. YVO posts regular updates about activity at Yellowstone, which can be found on the activity update webpage. We encourage you to explore our website for additional information on geologic hazards and current activity at Yellowstone.
The YVO webcam is offline temporarily. We hope to get it up and running soon. Please be aware that the camera runs via a solar panel and cellular modem. Unlike most similar cameras, it does not have connection to either AC power or the internet. In the interim, here's a nice image from the camera taken the last week that the camera was operational.
USGS scientist Phil Dawson and colleagues have applied a novel research approach to voice recognition software. In their January 2012 paper, published in Geophysical Research Letters, they utilize this software to discover that background seismic activity in geyser basins can be intimately linked to daily cycles of heating and cooling. For more information read the web article in the Yellowstone volcano earthquake monitoring section.
Recent telemetry problems, from ice and snow buildup on data transmission antennas, have caused intermittent malfunctions of the University of Utah's automated earthquake location system. The malfunctions result in false earthquake reports, which upon review, are then manually deleted from the earthquake catalog. The snow and ice buildup interferes with the continuous streaming of seismic data causing occasional signal dropouts. The dropouts cause spikes to appear in the data streams, which the automated system misinterprets as the abrupt appearance of a high amplitude seismic wave from an earthquake. Windy conditions, common this time of year, exacerbate the problem by contributing additional noise and thereby reducing the overall signal quality of the seismic data streams. In most cases, seismologists at the University of Utah can overcome these problems and still identify and locate earthquakes correctly. Seismic activity at Yellowstone remains at background levels.
More information about errors in the real-time earthquake system that lead to erroneous reports can be found here: Earthquake Hazards Program Errata for Real-time Earthquakes page.
Beginning October 1, 2010, the University of Utah Seismograph Stations has reduced the threshold from M 2.5 to M 1.5 for automated plotting of earthquakes for the Yellowstone region. For more information please see the UUSS announcement. See today's earthquake map.
A report, "Protocols for Geologic Hazards Response by the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory," has just been published. The document summarizes the protocols and tools that the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory (YVO) will now use during earthquakes, hydrothermal explosions, or other geological activity that could lead to a volcanic eruption. This USGS circular was written by an inter-organizational group of scientists, land managers, and emergency responders that met in November 2008 in Bozeman, Montana.
YVO has finished installing a series of radio-equipped temperature sensors to document changes in water flow and heat discharge in the Norris Geyser Basin. Daily, weekly, and monthly temperature plots are now available from our new monitoring page, "Taking the Temperature of the Norris Geyser Basin."
Geysers are rare hot springs that periodically erupt bursts of steam and hot water. Yellowstone National Park has more than half of the world's geysers. Old Faithful has remained faithful for at least the past 135 years, showering appreciative tourists every 50 to 95 minutes (most recently an annual average of 91 minutes). To view Old Faithful in real-time, see the National Park Service Old Faithful Webcam.
There were were notable changes in thermal activity at Norris Geyser Basin in 2003. These changes resulted in the closure of the Back Basin Trail and temporarydeployment of a monitoring network by YVO. Learn more.