GEOLOGIC HISTORY OF THE YELLOWSTONE REGION
The nature of the rocks reveals their origins
Geologists believe that "the present is the key to the past." After observing lava erupting from a present-day volcano or limestone forming in marine waters, we infer that similar types of ancient lavas or ancient limestones formed in virtually the same ways. This kind of reasoning is used to interpret the origins of all types of ancient rocks, for all the known geological processes that form rocks seem to have been operating since the earth's beginning.
Figure 5 shows the many different rock units that have been recognized in Yellowstone National Park. Arranged in a vertical column according to the geologic time intervals in which they formed, these rocks represent a large part of total earth history (fig. 6). A generalized geologic map (plate 1) shows the distribution of the various units (or groups of closely related units) exposed at the surface throughout the Park area. This map and figure 5 summarize much of the information that is necessary to interpret the Park's geologic historyin essence, to provide answers to these two important questions: What were the geologic events that formed the rocks? When did these events occur?
If we were to walk backward in time at the rate of one century per step, the first step would return us to 1872, the year that Yellowstone National Park was established. But to return to the oldest recorded event in its geologic history, we would have to walk (at 3 feet per step) some 15,000 miles, or three-fifths of the way around the world! Occurring far back in the antiquity of the Precambrian Eraapproximately 2.7 billion years ago according to radiometric dating (fig. 6)the oldest event resulted in rocks so crumpled and changed by heat and pressure that their original character is obscure. These rocks, having been transformed from still older ones, are called metamorphic rocks. Considered to form part of the very foundation of the continent itself, they are also commonly referred to as basement rocks.
Gneiss, a coarsely banded rock (fig. 7), and schist, a finely banded rock, are the most common kinds of metamorphic rocks in Yellowstone. Originally, the gneiss probably was granite, and the schist was a shale or sandstone. Outcrops of the gneisses and schists occur only in the northern part of the Park (pl. 1), where they form the central cores of some mountain ranges such as the Gallatin Range (fig. 3). They also lie buried beneath younger rocks in many other areas of the Park.
From the time of the metamorphic event, when the gneisses and schists were formed, until the deposition of sediments of the Cambrian Period (figs. 5 and 6), there is virtually no record. It is reasonably certain, however, that several times during this 2.1-billion-year interval the region was intensely squeezed and uplifted into high mountains and then deeply eroded. By the end of Precambrian time, approximately 570 million years ago, the ancient Yellowstone landscape had been reduced by erosion to a flat, stark, almost featureless plain, which was soon to be flooded by a shallow sea encroaching from the west. This very old surface is now partly exposed in some places across the Buffalo Plateau, at the north edge of the Park (fig. 1).
From the appearance of the rugged, mountainous terrain of Yellowstone National Park, it is difficult to visualize a time when this region lay close to sea level, at times even below sea level. Yet the evidence is clear that from the Cambrian Period to the latter part of the Cretaceous Period, a span of about 500 million years, vast stretches of western lands were flooded repeatedly by broad shallow seas that often reached from Canada to Mexico (fig. 8). During these great floodings, widespread horizontal beds of sand, silt, clay, limy mud, and other sediments were deposited on the ocean floors, along the adjoining beaches and wide tidal flats, and across the broad flood plains of large rivers that emptied into the seas. All of these ancient sediments have now hardened into compact well-layered sandstones, shales, and limestones (figs. 9 and 10). These sedimentary rocks have been divided into 25 or more distinct formations in the Yellowstone region (fig. 5), where they locally attain a combined thickness of more than 10,000 feet.
The first Paleozoic sea to reach the Yellowstone region, some 550 million years ago, brought with it the earliest abundant signs of life on earth. Small hard-shelled animals that lived mainly on the shallow sea bottom are now preserved as fossils in rocks deposited during the Cambrian Period. Many of these animals were trilobites, long-extinct organisms resembling today's crabs and spiders. Each younger set of rocks or formations contains a different group of dominant fossils, each diagnostic of that period of geologic time in which they lived (fig. 11).
Fossils indicate the kind of environment in which the animals lived (fig. 12). Some species thrived in the open oceans; others thrived only along the beaches and in nearby lagoons. Still others, such as the incredibly large dinosaurs of the Jurassic and Cretaceous Periods, could survive only on the land or in swamps. From studies of the fossils and of the physical characteristics of the rocks in which they are now found, the shoreline patterns of the shifting seas can be determined. Studies show that the seas advanced and retreated across the Yellowstone Park region at least a dozen times during the Paleozoic and Mesozoic Eras.
Toward the end of the Mesozoic Era (in the latter part of the Cretaceous Period), the metamorphic basement rocks of Yellowstone lay covered by the vast blanket of flat-lying sediments. Today, these sedimentary rocks are exposed along the Snake River and its tributaries in the south-central part of the Park, over much of the Gallatin Range in the northwest corner, and at several places in the north-central and northeastern parts (pl. 1). Elsewhere, either they are hidden from view beneath volcanic debrisash and lavathat later buried them, or they have been removed by erosion. But wherever exposed, the original horizontal layers of sedimentary rocks have been severely twisted and broken by later mountain-building movements.
Near the close of the Mesozoic Era the earth was subjected to a series of intense crustal disturbances that geologists call the Laramide orogeny (orogeny means mountain-building). The origin and nature of the forces that bent and cracked the crust are unknown, but current theories being developed about sea-floor spreading and continental drift may shed light on this major upheaval that began about 75 million years ago. A significant effect of the Laramide orogeny was the uplift and contortion of many of the mountain ranges within what we today call the Rocky Mountains.
At the onset of the crustal disturbance, the gently rolling landscape of the Yellowstone region began to warp and flex into large upfolds (anticlines) and downfolds (synclines) (fig. 13). Gradually the mountain-building pressures increased, finally reaching such magnitude that the limbs of the folds could bend and stretch no further; thereupon, the rock layers broke and were shoved over one another along extensive reverse faults. The severely crumpled rocks within the Park area can now be seen only along the north edge and in the south-central part along the Snake River. In both places, the folds and faults are especially well displayed by the layered Paleozoic and Mesozoic sedimentary formations (fig. 9).
One of the most prominent Laramide structural features is a large anticline in the north-central and northeastern parts of the Park (fig. 14, section BB'); the road from Mammoth to the Northeast Entrance crosses much of this feature (pl. 1). Although originally forming a high mountain mass, the anticline has been eroded so extensively that it no longer appears mountainous (fig. 18). It displays a broad core of Precambrian gneisses and schists and is bounded along its southwest margin by a large reverse fault. Along the fault, the ancient gneisses and schists have been shoved over rocks as young as Late Cretaceous, a movement amounting to 10,000 feet or more. The Cretaceous rocks are those that are now exposed at Mount Everts (fig. 10).
During the Laramide orogeny, many folds and faults formed in the northwestern part of the Park, in the area now occupied by the Gallatin Range (fig. 14, section AA'). In south-central Yellowstone, the Paleozoic and Mesozoic sedimentary rocks were tightly folded into three anticlines separated from one another by synclines and faults (fig. 14, section CC'). Movement along one reverse fault in this area was locally more than 10,000 feet.
As the lands were uplifted and contorted, they came under vigorous attack by the ever-present agents of erosion. Tremendous quantities of rock were stripped from the highlands, and the debris was carried by streams into the adjacent lowland basins and deposited mostly as sand and gravel. As the highlands continued to rise, the basins continued to sink, and in a short period of time great thicknesses of basin-fill sediments accumulated locally. One such deposit, the Harebell Formation of latest Cretaceous age in south-central Yellowstone (fig. 5), is more than 8,000 feet thick.
Other similar anticlines, synclines, and reverse faults no doubt extend far into the interior of Yellowstone National Park, and perhaps entirely across it in places, but they lie buried beneath a thick capping of volcanic rocks. Nevertheless, it seems safe to conclude that none of the Park area escaped the effects of the great forces of the Laramide orogeny. These forces, regardless of how they originated deep within the earth, seem to have been compressional (fig. 13), pushing the upper layers of the earth's crust from the east and northeast toward the west and southwest. This interpretation is based on the style of the structural features just described, which shows that the steep limbs of folds, as well as the direction of movements along reverse faults, point toward the west or southwest (fig. 14)
By early Eocene time, about 20 million years after they had begun, the deformational forces relaxed. But the effects of the giant earth movements were to last for a very long time. Crustal disturbances of such magnitude commonly produce conditions deep within the earth which, in places, gives rise to intense volcanic activity; one such place was Yellowstone.
In early Eocene time, between 55 and 50 million years ago, several large volcanoes erupted in and near Yellowstone National Park. This volcanic activity resulted in the accumulation of the vast pile of Absaroka volcanic rocks (fig. 5) which now makes up most of the Absaroka and Washburn Ranges and part of the Gallatin Range, and which covers several other smaller areas in the Park (pl. 1).
What special geologic conditions would cause these spectacular eruptions of molten rock at the earth's surface? Measurements taken in deep mines and oil wells show that the normal increase in the earth's temperature with depth is about 1°F per 100 feet. This heat is generated by the decay of radioactive elementschiefly uranium, thorium, and potassiumwhich are present in at least small amounts in virtually all rocks of the earth's crust. Ordinarily, enough heat is conducted to the earth's surface so that the deeply buried rocks do not become hot enough to melt. In some places, however, the heat is not carried off fast enough, and the temperature rises slowly toward the melting point of the rock. Such hot spots may develop (1) because the rocks in those places contain more than an average amount of radioactive elements; (2) because hotter material moves upward from still deeper levels in the earth; or (3) because drastic changes in pressure are brought about by the alternate squeezing and relaxing of mountain-building forces, which in turn substantially affect the melting point of the rocks. Whatever the cause, the eventual result is the accumulation of a huge body of molten rock, called magma, enclosed in a deep underground chamber.
Magma, being a mixture of hot liquids and gases that is lighter in weight than the solid rocks surrounding it, tends to rise toward the earth's surface. Forcing its way upward, some of the molten material solidifies before reaching the surface and forms bodies of various kinds of intrusive igneous rocks (fig. 15). Some of the magma, however, reaches the surface and either pours out as lava or is blown out explosively as rock fragments, ash, and pumice to form extrusive igneous rocks.
1clear to light-colored silicon dioxide.
The magmas which formed the Absaroka volcanoes erupted mainly through large central vents (fig. 16). Most of the eruptions were fairly quiet, with the molten rock welling up to the surface and cascading down the sides of the volcanoes chiefly as viscous lava flows and breccias. Rain, seeping into these porous rocks, caused huge landslides of mud and broken rock to stream down the mountainsides. Hence, many of the rocks seen today are volcanic brecciasjumbled but crudely layered deposits of large and small angular blocks embedded in a sandy matrix, much like man-made concrete except that the rock fragments are considerably coarser (fig. 17). Viewed from a distance, however, most of the breccia deposits have a distinct layered appearance (fig. 18). The predominant extrusive igneous rock in the Absaroka volcanic sequence is andesite, but basalt also occurs in places (fig. 15).
At times the Absaroka volcanic eruptions were violently explosive, showering the countryside with rock bombs, cinders, and ash. The finer debris that reached the lower slopes of the volcanoes was reworked and carried by streams into the intervening valleys, where it was deposited as sand and gravel (fig. 16). Eventually the entire Yellowstone region was choked with volcanic debris, the material from one volcano mixing with that from neighboring volcanoes. Even the mountain masses uplifted during the preceding Laramide orogeny were covered by the vast accumulation (fig. 18).
Absaroka volcanism, however, was not a simple, continuous processthe eruptions were intermittent, the many volcanoes were not always active at the same time, and between eruptions there were long periods of quiescence during which the erupted material was deeply eroded. The repetitive nature of the eruptions is best illustrated by the famous fossil forests of Yellowstone. Here is striking evidence that enough time elapsed between eruptions for widespread forests to become established on the lower slopes of the volcanoes and in the broad valleys between them. Judged from the great size of some of the now-petrified logs (fig. 19), several hundreds of years must have passed before another volcanic outburst smothered the forest. Many different forest layers have been recognized in the Specimen Ridge area as well as in several other places throughout the Park.
As the Absaroka magma rose from deep underground, some of it squirted, like toothpaste, into the layered Paleozoic and Mesozoic sedimentary rocks through which it passed. These relatively small masses of molten rock material slowly cooled and crystallized to form intrusive igneous rocks such as diorite (fig. 20). The resulting intrusive bodies, called sills, dikes, stocks, and laccoliths, depending on their form, are most abundant in the Gallatin Range and in the vicinity of the East Entrance (pl. 1). At the conclusion of volcanic activity, the last of the rising magma solidified in the main conduits to form slender, somewhat cylindrical bodies of rock called volcanic necks that probably conform closely to the shape of the original conduits. The circular intrusive rock body at Bunsen Peak (fig. 21), now exposed to view because erosion has stripped away the lava and volcanic breccia that once completely buried it, represents either a volcanic neck or a small stock that solidified directly beneath a volcano.
Mount Washburn is the north half of one of the ancient Absaroka volcanoes (fig. 26), and many of the rocks and other features related to this volcano, which characterized this great period of volcanism, can be seen along the road between Canyon Village and Tower. In roadcuts just south of Dunraven Pass several thin igneous dikes cut through volcanic breccias. These dikes radiate outward from the nearby central core of the volcano, which lies east of the highway in the vicinity of Washburn Hot Springs. From Dunraven Pass northward for 2-3 miles, the road is lined with lava flows and very coarse breccias that accumulated close to the volcanic neck (fig. 17). Farther north toward Tower Falls, breccias and conglomerates predominate, but the average size of individual rock fragments decreases gradually northward away from the center of eruption. Beds of sandstone then begin to appear in the sequence, having been deposited mainly by streams that drained the north slope of the volcano.
At the end of Absaroka volcanism, approximately 40 million years ago (fig. 6), all of Yellowstone lay buried beneath several thousand feet of lavas, breccias, and ash (fig. 18). The landscape must have appeared as a gently rolling plateau, drained by sluggish, meandering streams and dotted here and there by volcanoes still rising above the general level of the ground. This plateau surface, however, probably stood at a maximum of only a few thousand feet above sea level, for animals and plants now found as fossils in the Absaroka volcanic rocks indicate that warm-temperature to even subtropical climates existed during the volcanic period (fig. 19).
Little is known in detail of the geologic events in Yellowstone during Oligocene and Miocene times. Rocks of these ages have not been recognized within the Park; if ever deposited there, they have since been removed by erosion or buried by younger volcanic rocks. Thus, we can only speculate as to what events took place during this 25-million-year period. No doubt the broad Absaroka volcanic plateau was eroded, but not deeply, because the topographic relief and stream gradients of the region remained low. There are also hints that some volcanic activity took place, for volcanic rocks representing parts of this time interval occur south of the Park, and some of these rocks may have originated within the Park area. Little transpired, however, to significantly alter the existing geological makeup of the Park; it was indeed a quiet time, particularly when compared with the extremely dynamic periods which immediately preceded and followed it.
Many features of the present-day landscape of Yellowstone stem from Pliocene time, about 10 million years ago. At that time the entire regionin fact, much of the Rocky Mountain chainwas being uplifted by giant earth movements to heights several thousand feet above its previous level. This episode of regional uplift accounts in large measure for the present high average elevation of the Yellowstone country. Although the precise cause of the uplift is unknown, the uplift assuredly reflects profound changes that were taking place deep within or beneath the earth's crust.
Great tensional forces, operating during Pliocene time, pulled the Yellowstone region apart and partially broke it into large steep-sided blocks bounded by normal faults (fig. 13). Some blocks sank while others rose, commonly on the order of several thousand feet. The Gallatin Range, in the northwest corner of the Park, for example, was lifted as a rectangular mountain block along north-trending 20-mile-long normal faults that border it on each side (fig. 14, section AA'; pl. 1). In the south-central part of the Park, the differential movements between several adjacent fault blocks totaled more than 15,000 feet (fig. 14, section CC'). Farther south, the Teton Range moved up and the floor of Jackson Hole moved down along a normal-fault zone that stretches along the east foot of the range. An enormous offset of about 30,000 feet developed between the two crustal blocks, accounting in large part for the now incredibly steep and rugged east face of the Teton Range.
The pronounced rise in elevation of the general ground surface and the chopping of the region into many mountainous fault blocks caused a profound increase in the rate of erosion. Once-sluggish streams turned into vigorous, fast-moving rivers that began to cut deeply into the Absaroka volcanic plateau. Huge quantities of rock debris were stripped off and carried out of the area, and at the end of the Pliocene, the Yellowstone region must have been very highly dissected mountains and table- and canyon-lands. Much of the landscape may have resembled the rugged terrain now seen in the Absaroka Range along the east side of the Park. These mountains (fig. 27), and the Washburn Range in the interior of the Park (fig. 4), today represent but small remnants of the vast pile of Absaroka volcanic rocks that once covered all of Yellowstone and the surrounding regions.
Last Updated: 18-Jan-2007