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.

Filter Total Items: 221
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...
Image: Yellowstone Temperature Logger
Yellowstone Volcano is monitored for signs of volcanic activity. The Yellowstone Volcano Observatory (YVO), is a partnership between the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), Yellowstone National Park, the University of Utah, the University of Wyoming, UNAVCO, the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology, the Idaho Geological Survey, and the Wyoming State...
Image shows billowing clouds of steam and smoke emanating from the ground
Since the most recent giant (caldera-forming) eruption 631,000 years ago, approximately 80 relatively nonexplosive eruptions have occurred. Of these eruptions, at least 27 were rhyolite lava flows in the caldera, 13 were rhyolite lava flows outside the caldera, and 40 were basalt vents outside the caldera. The most recent volcanic eruption at...
Old Faithful Geyser in eruption
Yellowstone is underlain by two magma bodies. The shallower one is composed of rhyolite (a high-silica rock type) and stretches from 5 km to about 17 km (3 to 10 mi) beneath the surface and is about 90 km (55 mi) long and about 40 km (25 mi) wide. The chamber is mostly solid, with only about 5-15% melt. The deeper reservoir is composed of basalt (...
river meandering through wide valley, with wisps of stem rising at various spots. Illuminated at sunset, with golden reflections
Yellowstone is a plateau high in the Rocky Mountains, and is snowbound for over six months per year. The mean annual temperature is 2.2°C (36°F), barely above the freezing point of water. However, Yellowstone is also an active geothermal area with hot springs emerging at ~92°C (~198°F) (the boiling point of water at Yellowstone's mean altitude)...
Lava spatters into the air
Actually, the source of the hotspot is more or less stationary at depth within the Earth, and the North America plate moves southwest across it. The average rate of movement of the plate in the Yellowstone area for the last 16.5 million years has been about 4.6 centimeters (1.8 inches) per year. However, if shorter time intervals are analyzed, the...
Image: Alaska Volcano Observatory Operations
The science of forecasting a volcanic eruption has significantly advanced over the past 25 years. Most scientists think that the buildup preceding a catastrophic eruption would be detectable for weeks and perhaps months to years. Precursors to volcanic eruptions include strong earthquake swarms and rapid ground deformation and typically take place...
Large umbrella shaped cloud of volcanic ash viewed from a distance
The diagram below shows that the three largest Yellowstone eruptions emitted much more material than the eruptions of Mount St. Helens (1980), Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines (1991), Krakatau in Indonesia (1883, incorrectly known as Krakatoa), and Tambora in Indonesia (1815). The largest eruption in the last two million years was about 74,000...
Plume lightning during the volcanic eruption in Eyjafjallajokull glacier in Iceland in 2010
If another catastrophic, caldera-forming Yellowstone eruption were to occur, it would probably alter global weather patterns and have enormous impacts on human activity (especially agricultural production) for many years. At this time, however, scientists do not have the ability to predict specific consequences or durations of possible global...
column of white water and steam shooting up out of the ground. blue skies.
In some cases, limited scientific drilling for research can help us understand magmatic and hydrothermal (hot water) systems; however, drilling to mitigate a volcanic threat is a much different subject with unknown consequences, high costs, and severe environmental impacts. In addition to the enormous expense and technological difficulties in...