• Sunset Lake inside Yellowstone National Park. Photo by Peggy Hamlen

    Ongoing research allows for closer monitoring of Yellowstone’s famed supervolcano

    By Jack Ballard

    Photo by Peggy Hamlen

    To the informed eye, evidence of volcanism in Yellowstone National Park is everywhere. Vertiginous cliffs – over which plummet inspiring waterfalls, such as Undine Falls east of Mammoth – often mark the edge of lava flows from bygone volcanos.

    The world-renowned Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone displays numerous aspects of volcanism on its multi-hued tapestry of earth and stone. Igneous rock, formed by cooled magma, is rife within Yellowstone and the surrounding area. Prized for creating arrowheads and other implements, obsidian was actively traded by American Indians.

    A famous outcropping of this shiny, black volcanic stone is found in the park at Obsidian Cliffs. Thermal features, such as Old Faithful and a plethora of colorful, odorous hot springs bear witness to Yellowstone’s volcanic past, and the dormant, yet exceedingly powerful expanse of magma that lurks below the earth’s surface in America’s oldest national park.

    Scientists have studied Yellowstone’s geology and volcanic history for decades. Bob Smith, a professor of geology at the University of Utah, has labored at a task he loves for more than a half-century.

    “I’ve worked in Yellowstone since 1956. In 1963 we started using earthquake data in our research,” Smith said.


    When was the last time there was volcanism at Yellowstone?

    According to Yellowstone Volcano Observatory and U.S. Geological Survey information, the most recent volcanic activity consisted of rhyolitic lava flows that erupted approximately 70,000 years ago. The largest of these flows formed the Pitchstone Plateau in southwestern Yellowstone National Park.

    Researchers have long studied the Yellowstone area and the supervolcano. The U.S. Geological Survey’s Yellowstone Volcano Observatory has compiled a large amount of information about the area.

    The Q&A section has a trove of information, including an answer to perhaps the most asked question: What is the chance of another catastrophic eruption at Yellowstone?


    To read the entire story on Yellowstone’s supervolcano, find this issue on newsstands now. To read more about Montana all year, subscribe now.

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