Frequently Asked Questions

Natural Hazards

The USGS monitors and conducts research on a wide range of natural hazards to help decision-makers prepare for and respond to hazard events that threaten life and property.

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USGS Forecast for Ground Shaking Intensity from Natural and Induced Earthquakes in 2017
Magnitude scales, like the moment magnitude, measure the size of the earthquake at its source. An earthquake has one magnitude. The magnitude do not depend on where the measurement is made. Often, several slightly different magnitudes are reported for an earthquake. This happens because the relation between the seismic measurements and the...
Volcano erupting and spewing a huge cloud of rock and ash into the sky.
The largest landslide on Earth in recorded history occurred during the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, a volcano in the Cascade Mountain Range in the State of Washington, USA. The volume of material was 0.67 cubic miles (2.8 cubic kilometers) and the landslide traveled about 14 miles down the North Fork Toutle River. Average landslide depth was...
Cumulative number of earthquakes with a magnitude of 3.0 or larger in the central and eastern United States, 1973-2014
Earthquake size, as measured by the Richter Scale is a well known, but not well understood, concept. The idea of a logarithmic earthquake magnitude scale was first developed by Charles Richter in the 1930's for measuring the size of earthquakes occurring in southern California using relatively high-frequency data from nearby seismograph stations....
Image: Installing Antenna and Solar Panel for Seismic Station
Earthquakes are recorded by a seismographic network. Each seismic station in the network measures the movement of the ground at that site. The slip of one block of rock over another in an earthquake releases energy that makes the ground vibrate. That vibration pushes the adjoining piece of ground and causes it to vibrate, and thus the energy...
Aerial view of the caldera of Mt Tambora, island of Sumbawa, Indonesia.
The term "supervolcano" implies a volcanic center that has had an eruption of magnitude 8 on the Volcano Explosivity Index (VEI), meaning that at one point in time it erupted more than 1,000 cubic kilometers (240 cubic miles) of material. In the early 2000s, the term “supereruption” began being used as a catchy way to describe VEI 8 eruptions....
Buffalo at Yellowstone National Park
Almost all earthquakes at Yellowstone are brittle-failure events caused when rocks break due to crustal stresses. Though we've been looking at Yellowstone for years, no one has yet identified "long-period (LP) events" commonly attributed to magma movement. If LP events are observed, that will NOT mean Yellowstone is getting ready to erupt. LP...
Image: The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone by Lucien Powell
Contrary to popular belief, Yellowstone was not named for the abundant rhyolite lavas in the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone that have been chemically altered by reactions with steam and hot water to create vivid yellow and pink colors. Instead, the name was attributed as early as 1805 to Native Americans who were referring to yellow sandstones along...
Image: Active Lava Flow
The most recent volcanic activity at Yellowstone 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. Learn more: Yellowstone Volcano Observatory
Image: Footprints in Ash from 1790 Kilauea Volcano Eruption
If another large, caldera-forming eruption were to occur at Yellowstone, its effects would be worldwide. Such a giant eruption would have regional effects such as falling ash and short-term (years to decades) changes to global climate. Those parts of the surrounding states of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming that are closest to Yellowstone would be...
Image shows gray ash covering cars and a house
Knowledge about past eruptions of Yellowstone combined with mathematical models of volcanic ash dispersion help scientists determine where and how much ashfall will occur in possible future eruptions. During the three caldera-forming eruptions that occurred between 2.1 million and 640,000 years ago, tiny particles of volcanic ash covered much of...
Excelsior Geyser erupting as a violent hydrothermal explosion. The ...
The most likely explosive event to occur at Yellowstone is actually a hydrothermal explosion—a rock-hurling geyser eruption—or a lava flow. Hydrothermal explosions are very small; they occur in Yellowstone National Park every few years and form a crater a few meters across. Every few thousand years, a hydrothermal explosion will form a crater as...
boiling water and white steam blasting up out of erupting geyser with snow on the ground
Yellowstone is not overdue for an eruption. Volcanoes do not work in predictable ways and their eruptions do not follow predictable schedules. Even so, the math doesn’t work out for the volcano to be “overdue” for an eruption. In terms of large explosions, Yellowstone has experienced three at 2.08, 1.3, and 0.631 million years ago. This comes out...