What is a supervolcano? What is a supereruption?

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. Explosive events of this size erupt so much magma that a circular-shaped collapse feature, called a caldera, forms above the evacuated magma storage region. 

The largest (super)eruption at Yellowstone (2.1 million years ago) had a volume of 2,450 cubic kilometers. Like many other caldera-forming volcanoes, most of Yellowstone’s many eruptions have been smaller than VEI 8 supereruptions, so it is confusing to categorize Yellowstone as a “supervolcano.” 

Other caldera-forming volcanoes that have produced exceedingly large pyroclastic eruptions in the past 2 million years include Long Valley in eastern California, Valles Caldera in New Mexico, Toba in Indonesia, and Taupo in New Zealand. Taupo erupted 22,600 years ago and is the most recent supereruption on Earth (with a volume of about 1,130 cubic kilometers).

Additional volcanoes capable of producing supereruptions include the large caldera volcanoes of Japan, Indonesia, and South America.

 

circles representing the volume of magma erupted from different volcanoes

Comparison of volumes of magma erupted from selected volcanoes within the last 2 million years. (Public domain.)

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Is Yellowstone overdue for an eruption? When will Yellowstone erupt?

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...

What type of eruption will Yellowstone have if it erupts again?

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...

What was the largest volcanic eruption in the 20th century?

The World's largest eruption of the 20th century occurred in 1912 at Novarupta on the Alaska Peninsula. An estimated 15 cubic kilometers of magma was explosively erupted during 60 hours beginning on June 6th. This volume is equivalent to 230 years of eruption at Kilauea (Hawaii) or about 30 times the volume erupted by Mount St. Helens (Washington...

Where does the United States rank in the number of volcanoes?

The United States ranks third, behind Indonesia and Japan, in the number of historically active volcanoes (that is, those for which we have written accounts of eruptions). In addition, about 10 percent of the more than 1,500 volcanoes that have erupted in the past 10,000 years are located in the United States. Most of these volcanoes are found in...

Where is the largest active volcano in the world?

Rising gradually to more than 4 km above sea level, Hawaii’s Mauna Loa is the largest volcano on our planet. Its submarine flanks descend to the sea floor an additional 5 km (3 mi), and the sea floor in turn is depressed by Mauna Loa's great mass another 8 km (5 mi). This makes the volcano's summit about 17 km (10.5 mi) above its base!

What was the most destructive volcanic eruption in the history of the United States?

The May 18, 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens (Washington) was the most destructive in the history of the United States. Novarupta (Katmai) Volcano in Alaska erupted considerably more material in 1912, but owing to the isolation and sparse population of the region, there were no human deaths and little property damage. In contrast, the eruption of...

What are some examples of supervolcanoes?

Volcanoes that have produced exceedingly voluminous pyroclastic eruptions and formed large calderas in the past 2 million years include Yellowstone, Long Valley in eastern California, Toba in Indonesia, and Taupo in New Zealand. Other 'supervolcanoes' would likely include the large caldera volcanoes of Japan, Indonesia, Alaska (e.g. Aniakchak,...

How many active volcanoes are there on Earth?

There are about 1,500 potentially active volcanoes worldwide, aside from the continuous belts of volcanoes on the ocean floor at spreading centers like the Mid-Atlantic Ridge . About 500 of those 1,500 volcanoes have erupted in historical time. Many of those are located along the Pacific Rim in what is known as the " Ring of Fire ." In the United...
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Aerial view of the caldera of Mt Tambora, island of Sumbawa, Indonesia.
January 18, 2017

Aerial View of Mt. Tambora Caldera

Aerial view of the caldera of Mt. Tambora, island of Sumbawa, Indonesia.  

river meandering through wide valley, with wisps of stem rising at various spots. Illuminated at sunset, with golden reflections
December 31, 2016

MIdway Geyser Basin at Sunset

Midway Geyser Basin at Sunset, Yellowstone National Park

July 18, 2016

Inside USGS, No. 6, Ken Pierce, Heavy Breathing of Yellowstone Caldera

Dr. Kenneth Pierce studied the geology and geomorphology of the greater Yellowstone area for nearly his entire career with the U.S. Geological Survey. From 1965 to present, Dr. Pierce has mapped glacial deposits, pioneered Quaternary dating techniques, conducted research on the Yellowstone Hot Spot, studied the geothermal areas, explored the geology of archaeological sites

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September 28, 2010

Caldera Demonstration Model

A caldera is a large, usually circular volcanic depression formed when magma is withdrawn or erupted from a shallow underground magma reservoir. It is often difficult to visualize how calderas form. This simple experiment using flour, a balloon, tubing, and a bicycle pump, provides a helpful visualization for caldera formation.

Attribution: Yellowstone
Scenery: Valley surrounded by forested mountains. Multiple wisps of steam rise from the valley floor at various locations.
June 30, 2006

Upper Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park

Aerial view of Upper Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park

Large umbrella shaped cloud of volcanic ash viewed from a distance
June 15, 1991

Giant ash cloud from the eruption of Mount Pinatubo, 1991

Giant ash cloud from the eruption of Mount Pinatubo, 1991 towering above farms and agricultural lands in the Philippines.