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February 13, 2023

Yellowstone is well known as a unique and exceptional ecological environment—its nickname is “Wonderland” for a reason.  At a recent meeting of the International Union of Geological Sciences, Yellowstone was also recognized for its spectacular geological heritage.

Yellowstone Caldera Chronicles is a weekly column written by scientists and collaborators of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory. This week's contribution is from Jamie Farrell, assistant research professor with the University of Utah Seismograph Stations and Chief Seismologist of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory.

Yellowstone became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978—in fact, Yellowstone and Mesa Verde National Parks were the first two such sites in the United States!  Currently, Yellowstone is one of 24 World Heritage Sites in the U.S. and one of 1,154 sites worldwide.  In their synopsis on why Yellowstone was chosen as a World Heritage Site, UNESCO states, “Yellowstone National Park is a protected area showcasing significant geological phenomena and processes.  It is also a unique manifestation of geothermal forces, natural beauty, and wild ecosystems where rare and endangered species thrive. As the site of one of the few remaining intact large ecosystems in the northern temperate zone of Earth, Yellowstone’s ecological communities provide unparalleled opportunities for conservation, study, and enjoyment of large-scale wildland ecosystem processes.

Jamie Farrell presents Yellowstone as one of the first 100 IUGS Geological Heritage Sites
Jamie Farrell presents Yellowstone as one of the first 100 IUGS Geological Heritage Sites during the 60th anniversary IUGS meeting in Zumaia, Spain in October, 2022.  Photo by Marjorie Chan.

And the accolades keep coming, as Yellowstone was recently bestowed another honor!  In October 2022, Yellowstone was chosen to be included as one of the first 100 International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) Geological Heritage Sites.  The IUGS defines a Geological Heritage Site as “a key place with geological elements and/or processes of scientific international relevance, used as a reference, and/or with a substantial contribution to the development of geological sciences through history.”  Yellowstone, with its world-famous geothermal features, landscapes, diverse animal life, and being home to one of the world’s largest volcanoes definitely fits that definition.  The fact that Yellowstone is the world’s first national park is the cherry on top.

Yellowstone was honored by IUGS in Zumaia, Spain during the Union’s 60th anniversary event from October 25 to 28, 2022.  The event, along with the unveiling of the “First 100,” was the culmination of many hours of work to identify candidate sites and then to decide which ones made the list.  In addition to the world-class geology and biology that can be found in the Yellowstone region, a very important factor that makes Yellowstone special was that the park itself has been protected since 1872, and that it is largely surrounded by public lands that make the Yellowstone geo-ecosystem one of the most intact large ecosystems on Earth, allowing for the mostly unimpeded natural movement of species.  In addition, the world-class hydrothermal pools have been host to biological discoveries that have changed the medical field for the better

The main arguments for including Yellowstone as one of the “First 100” were summarized as: “The Yellowstone area fits most, if not all, the definitions, and standards for an IUGS Geological Heritage Site.  It is protected, with most of it within Yellowstone National Park; has world-class geological deposits that are accessible to the over 4 million annual visitors; is scientifically valuable to a host of disciplines, including but not limited to tectonics, petrology, seismology, volcanology, minerology, geomorphology, biology, ecology, and medicine; and is unique on Earth, hosting world-famous geysers such as Old Faithful and Steamboat.  Given the dynamic nature of Yellowstone, it is a superb natural laboratory for biological, ecological, and geological processes.

Certificate for Yellowstone as one of the first 100 IUGS Geological Heritage Sites
Document certifying The Yellowstone Volcanic and Hydrothermal System, USA, as one of the first 100 IUGS Geological Heritage Sites as declared during the 60th anniversary IUGS meeting held in Zumaia, Spain in October 2022.

Jamie Farrell, University of Utah scientist and Chief Seismologist of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory, was honored to be able to present Yellowstone as one of the First 100 IUGS World Geological Heritage Sites at the meeting.  If you would like to see the description of Yellowstone as well as the other 99 sites chosen, you can download the electronic version of the book that describes the “First 100” from The “First 100” sites span more than 40 countries, and more than 350 experts were involved in authoring the descriptions of the sites.  The team that proposed Yellowstone and wrote the description that can be found in the book includes:

  • Jamie Farrell, University of Utah
  • Mike Poland, U.S. Geological Survey
  • Madison Myers, Montana State University
  • Robert B. Smith, University of Utah

We look forward to continuing to honor Yellowstone geological heritage by learning as much as we can about the area’s magmatic, tectonic, and hydrothermal systems, and how these lessons will continue to better prepare us for future geologic events not only in Yellowstone but across the globe.

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