The shivering Yellowstone

Yellowstone caldera.

Yellowstone caldera.

This is just a brief little post on Yellowstone to make everyone happy that is based mainly on what GeoLurking wrote in the comment field on the previous post.

First of all I would like to say that the activity behind yesterdays M4.8 earthquake is an ongoing process that has been running at least since 2003. I should also say that it is normal behavior from such a large volcano as Yellowstone. Next thing that is important to know is that for a big volcano like Yellowstone this is nothing. I would lift an eyebrow if there was several meters of uplift per day, a few centimeters is really nothing.


In 2000 the activity at Steamboat Geyser resumed after a nine year hiatus and a new thermal feature opened up in 2003. After that intermittent small earthquake swarms have occurred in the area, the latest one is not really out of sorts. It is also a good idea to remember that the current activity is mainly towards the ringfault on the caldera edge. And one should know that fresh magma arriving into the system shows up as an inflation in the middle of the caldera, not on the side like now.

During two previous earthquake swarms the geologists at USGS has decided that the cause was movement of hydrothermal fluids or a minor movement of magma. No new arriving magma has been detected into the magma reservoir of Yellowstone, so if it is magma moving it is old and stale magma depleted of volatile gases.


Yellowstone has had minor eruptive activity after deglaciation in the form of minor lava effusion, but no major eruption. It is at this stage highly unlikely that an eruption will occur, there is though a minor chance that sooner or later a hydrothermal explosion, maar-formation, will happen at the location of present activity. The risk for a major eruption is zero.

If you look at the plot by GeoLurking above you will notice that there is a line marking the boundary for where superheated water goes supercritical and expand violently. Now imagine that old magma moves close to the water table there, that could cause a steamdriven explosion, or your basic maar.


So the earthquake itself, is that not dangerous? No, not at all, it is just a sign that the pressure is increasing and is being released as the hydrothermal fluids get excited. The most likely outcome is a new hydrothermal field and that Steamboat become a tad unruly. The Yellowstone area has suffered an earthquake 500 times more powerful in historic times, go figure how little effect this one will have.

If you believe that a Supereruption will occur you should instead go to IKEA and buy the lamp named LIFE.


86 thoughts on “The shivering Yellowstone

  1. Since late summer 2013, the Yellowstone GPS network has tracked a small ground deformation episode in north-central Yellowstone National Park. During the past five months, the NRWY GPS station has recorded about 3.5 cm (1.4 in) of uplift and about 1 cm (0.4 in) of southeastward ground movement, relative to a stable reference station north of the Park.


    • Exactly, and that is a very very minute uplift at such a large volcano as Yellowstone.
      Nothing to worry about for anyone.
      I would though not stand within a few meters of Steamboat… that could kill you if you are unlucky.

      • Carl what I am watching if there was anything, I mean anything remotely Volcanic even a Phreatic
        Phart, In Yellowstone,the media will ring the DOOM bells of Hades…

        • Well, at least that will give CNN something to do other than it’s continual nonstop mindless speculation about an airplane and it’s cavalcade of purported experts.

          I think the only one they haven’t rolled out yet is Kaku to explain how quantum gravity is to blame.

  2. Gee, How did I get fooled? Hand over head, I thought that was the wrong volcano.
    Anyway without any news up yet on Anak, the mountain was at a level 3 alert status according to VDiscovery. Well now we shall see if what that aircraft spotted was true or not.

    • I for one would not be surprised if it was accurate report from the airplane. Anak has been unusually quiet lately. Especially since I am not there.

  3. Here is a higher-resolution GPS plot from near Norris Junction. Same basic data as Michele’s, but the latest deformation episode is bit more revealing. Of note, is the overall deformation trends since 2004 had been essentially one of gradual subsidence, with a Westerly motion. Over the last ~ 7 mos., both of these trends showed a reversal in direction and with a dramatically increased slope (rate of change vs. time) as compared to the previous 10 years…. so the current deformation motions are not a simple accleration of the previous trend(s), which I would think would be the case if tectonics were largely involved. While the magnitude of deformation is still puny, the fact that an obvious “directional” change in recent GPS trends occurred is what’s intriguing…and indicates “something” likely occurred (or is still occurring?) at depth. If El Hierro is any indication of what deformation + dike intrusions looks like on GPS data, my “guess” is some type of minor magmatic movement is involved, which in turn has changed the thermal budget in the Norris Junction area.

    Thanks again to GeoLurking for the plots. Very informative and BTW, available only on VC!
    What a site.

    • Hail to Lurking for the plots !
      El Hierro is so tiny compared to YS, I’m not sure you can really compare. YS is much more complex and composite too.

      • Keep in mind, El Hierro is just a singular volcano that’s part of a larger hotspot region (canary islands).

  4. Hydrothermal – water expands 6000%

    I first watched this little experiment on a TV program showing how volcanoes pulverise rock into minute particles of ash

  5. *note before reading – this is an amateur rumination*

    One thing that I think people should keep in mind is that plate-motion is still relevant & makes for a bit of a different situation at Yellowstone than most large calderas around the world.

    I actually think this is further evidence that we won’t see a major eruption form Yellowstone for quite some time. As most of us know, nested caldera structures don’t usually erupt larger the second time around (although there are exceptions) primarily because the newly formed caldera “lid” that forms after collapse is much weaker than the hardened bedrock lid that existed prior to the initial caldera forming eruption. Yellowstone has a TON of prolific lava flows, many of which are formed from de-gassed rhyolite. This tells me a few things.

    1. The Rhyolitic magma was degassed prior to erupting out as lava flows. Given the amount of geothermal & fumarolic activity, this isn’t much of a surprise to me. Degassed ryholite erupts as lava flows instead of as a ridiculous mega eruption. For reference, see the obsidian flow that came from Cordon Caulle’s 2011 eruption (

    2. The caldera lid isn’t even strong enough to prevent degassed lava flows from escaping. If the caldera can’t hold in smaller lava flows, there isn’t any great reason to believe it can withstand the massive amount of pressure buildup required to form a supereruption. Now, the current caldera IS a bit of a nested caldera, but throughout Yellowstone’s history, this is the exception to the rule as most of it’s calderas are of the single-event variety.

    3. Compare the yellowstone hotspot to other known supervolcanic spots around the world. Yellowstone IS unique in that it’s the only plume-related supervolcano among the major, well known VEI-8 eruptors. But it’s also the only system that shows a ridiculous amount of hydrothermal and geothermal activity. It’s not because the yellowstone area gets a greater volume of water than other supervolcanoes – I’m fairly certain it’s just a product of the caldera lid being more porous and “piecemeal” like than other caldera systems. In other words, it’s more akin to a pile of rubble than a lid, which allows water deep and easy access to the geothermal heat produced by the magma system.

    I think the next caldera eruption from Yellowstone will likely be outside of the current caldera boundaries. I do think there will be another caldera forming eruption at Yellowstone, but I don’t think it will happen until the hotspot migrates over fresh bedrock which will be quite some time (even on a geological time scale). The migration of the hotspot is likely part of the reason why many people believe the current hotspot is dying. I don’t think this is the case – if it were, we would likely have seen a decreased energy output over the last 16 million years, but the energy output has been fairly constant as the recent caldera eruptions have been among the largest that have existed in the hotspot track. The heat source for the current CALDERA is migrating north east as the american continent slides southwest at approximately 2.5-3 CM per year, which places it roughly 10-12 miles from the center of the plume head after the last eruption 640,000 years ago.

    One interesting thing is that there was a period between 16-10 million years back in which the hotspot migrated eastward at a rate of 7cm per year. Since then it’s slowed down to the current rate of around 2.9cm per year (around 22 kilometers per million years)

    • So In other words, I don’t think the yellowstone plume is dying or losing strength, but I DO believe the yellowstone caldera is dying as the plume is migrating eastward. Since the plume is the source of heat, the old ryholitic magma in the caldera is now starting to crystallize beyond eruptibility as the heat source migrates away.

      • To be nitpicky, the plume is stationary, it is America that is moving westwards (now). Back when it moved 7cm per year it moved eastwards, something that gives a rather peculiar horseshoe-shaped trail of calderas as the hotspot punched through.

        • The paper I just skimmed through seemed to suggest the acceleration possibly be relating to the hot spot crossing a subducted spreading center. I would imagine the sunken farralon plate could have had an impact in that area as well.

          • I think it has more to do with the spreading of the MAR won over the previous motion pattern and is now shoving the north americas WSW…

      • cbus, you always get me thinking. Granted, the gas flux and the heat flux from active geothermal fields like Yellowstone, Kamchatka, Taupo, etc. is huge.. Then again so is the sheer volume of eruptible products these fields produce. Does anyone know of any geothermal fields being precursors to big eruptions? Or do they tend to be symptoms of the dying stage of one?

        The pink and white terraces at Rotomahana are obvious examples but maybe they are the exceptions because the Tarawera eruption was a basaltic intrusion from depth, not a rhyolite eruption from the magma body fueling the geothermal field.

        • I think the only way we would figure that out is to identify a pre-caldera large volcanic province. The problem of course is that you don’t really know all that much of what a volcano such as Toba, Taupo, etc etc looked like prior to their caldera forming eruptions since the caldera blast more or less erases any history of what the volcanic area resembled pre-eruption. I’ve always been interested in thinking about what a volcanic region such a Toba resembled prior to it’s massive eruption. With such a large area, you would have to imagine it simply as being a standard graben with perhaps a few volcanic edifices / vents. If you were a human during the first Toba or Taupoa eruption, I would imagine to early humans, it would have simply resembled the ground suddenly just deciding it wanted to blow up for miles on end one random day.

          I think right now, your best bets would probably be Uturuncu or maybe Laguna Del Maule in the Andes range. To be fair, comparing any volcano to Yellowstone’s geothermal activity is tough since Yellowstone is far more geothermally active than any volcano in the world.

          I know Kamchatka had an area near Kronotsky Volcano that was known as the Valley of Geysers, which was a highly geothermally active region prior to a mudslide destroying much of the valley. Kronotsky is on my short list of volcanoes that have a good shot at becoming a decent sized caldera at some time in geological future (next 10,000 years).

          Overall, I don’t think geothermal fields can predict much of anything in a vacuum, but I do think they can provide some insight into a lot of factors. Naturally, a larger geothermal field would imply a larger overall volcanic province (but it can also represent greater groundwater access to a magmatic province). If a geothermal field suddenly grows in size, it *could* imply that dike emplacement has occurred in a new area, which may indicate a magma chamber trying to relieve pressure.

          • Edit – I apparently didn’t do my research enough. I guess Russia’s valley of Geysers isn’t related to Kronotsky, but instead is part of the Uzon caldera (which is part of the Kronotsky nature reserve).

            So maybe there is some more correlative truth to geysers and large active geothermal fields being much more common in post-caldera environments.

    • Yellowstone’s magmachamber contains degassed Rhyolite magma. But I think that basaltic intrusions from the plume below are able to rejuvenate the Rhyolitic magma by heating it up. Is this rejuvenated magma able to erupt with a VEI-8 force again?

  6. Enter the Hyenas.

    Hyenas are opportunistic feeders, scavenging when easy prey are not available.

    (AP) — A judge has dismissed civil action by a Chicago law firm and scolded attorneys for what she describes as an improper filing on behalf of a relative of a passenger on missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

    In a step toward a full-fledged lawsuit, Ribbeck Law Chartered asked a Cook County court last week to order Malaysia Airlines and Chicago-based Boeing Co. to turn over documents related to the plane’s disappearance.

    Judge Kathy Flanagan dismissed the request in a ruling Friday, saying it didn’t conform to Illinois law.

    She has tossed similar filings by Ribbeck in two other airplane crashes and warned the firm it could face “sanctions” if it happens again.

    Ribbeck spokesman Mervin Mateo says the firm still planned a full lawsuit if and when plane wreckage is found.

    Carnivora Feliformia Hyaenidae

    I really hope they piss off that judge. The result could be quite entertaining.

  7. Now time to sleep regardless of how interesting that signal on the seismo might be…
    Shleep well everyone!

  8. Sleep well!
    Image and video hosting by TinyPic
    From: Otto, Johann Friedrich Wilhelm: Vermischte Beyträge zur physikalischen Erdbeschreibung (Band 1) Brandenburg 1774

    • Very nice. We have it all, the caldera, the new cone, the lavaflows, even the incandescence at night plus the lava fountains !

  9. Sort of for Carl.

    The Vagaries of Harmonic Tremor.

    This is the spectral for the upconverted waveform from station UW.YPT..EHZ → 46.05°N – 118.96°W Elevation (m) 325

    The arrow is approximately located at the time of the event. My Guess is that the harmonics are related to the pipeline itself.

    A liquefied natural gas pipeline plant suffered an explosion and fire at 8:19 a.m. PDT in Plymouth, Washington Monday morning. The Tri-Cities Herald reports that four people were injured. Williams Northwest Pipeline spokesperson Michele Swaner said one employee was injured from burns, but that he would recover.

    The cause is still uncertain, but fire officials said that it began with an explosion in a building, and then a natural gas pipeline ruptured, which sent shrapnel into a “huge” storage tank, leading to a risk of a much larger explosion. People living three to six miles away from the plant said they could feel the first explosion, according to the local NBC and CBS affiliates.

    If my read is correct, there were two events detectable on the seismo before the thing went up. The steadily rising HT may be related as fluid flow was apparently increasing before the actual “building explosion”

    • I’m guessing that the frequency shifts in the tremor signal are from various valves and fittings being opened and closed in response to the explosion.

  10. Riding The Earthquake Wave.
    Exciting new details have been released about a simple, yet hopefully effective, way of measuring and studying the movement of ground as an earthquake strikes.
    A small four wheeled vehicle based on Moon Buggies has been invented by Earth scientists. Beneath the chassis is a tiny but hugely powerful Micro processor attached to sensors on each wheel, as well as an incredibly powerful magnet held above and forward of the vehicle by a mechanically operated kite.
    As the ripple wave created by the earthquake moves the ground upward so the minute particles of iron in the soil pull the magnet downwards towards them . Since the ripple is moving outwards and forwards from the epicentre so the magnet follows pulling the vehicle forwards.
    The data about speed and depth is collected from the sensors on the wheels and is saved and processed by the micro-computer. This instant data processing can, it is hoped, be used to alert that an earthquake is on it’s way.
    Below is photo of the vehicle being tested ready for more rigorous trials in such places as Turkey, The San Andreas fault area in the USA and the Volcanic desert in central Iceland where the rifting of the Mid Atlantic Ridge causes frequent earth movements. By the side of the vehicle can be seen specially trained Dogs which would replace the magnet where the epicentre of a quake is below an Icecap such as in the Antarctic or Vatnajökull in Iceland.

  11. I am always wary of people dealing in magnets. I’ve had recently an interview with such a firm in water treatment. Needless to say I sent them packing.

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