What is a supervolcano?

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. Eruptions of that size generally create a circular collapse feature called a caldera

The largest eruption at Yellowstone (2.1 million years ago) had a volume of 2,450 cubic kilometers. Like many other supervolcanoes, Yellowstone has also had much smaller eruptions.

Other volcanoes that produced exceedingly large pyroclastic eruptions and formed large calderas 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.

Additional "supervolcanoes" include the large caldera volcanoes of Japan, Indonesia, and South America. The most recent supervolcanic eruption on Earth occurred 26,500 years ago at Taupo located at the center of New Zealand's north island.

 

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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When will Yellowstone erupt again?

We do not know. Future volcanic eruptions could occur within or near Yellowstone National Park for the simple reason that the area has a long volcanic history and because there is hot and molten rock, or magma, beneath the caldera now. USGS scientists monitor Yellowstone for signs of volcanic activity using seismographs (to detect earthquakes) and...

What is the chance of another catastrophic volcanic eruption at Yellowstone?

Although another catastrophic eruption at Yellowstone is possible, scientists are not convinced that one will ever happen. The rhyolite magma chamber beneath Yellowstone is only 5-15% molten (the rest is solidified but still hot), so it is unclear if there is even enough magma beneath the caldera to feed an eruption. If Yellowstone does erupt...

What type of eruption will occur if Yellowstone 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 take place every few years and form a crater a few meters across. Every few thousand years, a hydrothermal explosion will form a crater as much as a few hundred...

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

The largest eruption in the world in 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 (...

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 belt of volcanoes on the ocean floor. About 500 of these have erupted in historical time. Many of these are located along the Pacific Rim in what is known as the 'Ring of Fire.' In the United States, volcanoes in the Cascade Range and Alaska (Aleutian volcanic...
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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.

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.