USGS Logo Geological Survey Bulletin 1347
The Geologic Story of Yellowstone National Park


Formation of the Yellowstone Caldera

We have now approached that point in geologic time—the beginning of the Quaternary Period between 2 million and 3 million years ago—when the stage was set for the triggering of those all-important events that culminated in the development of the 1,000-square-mile Yellowstone caldera and ultimately gave rise to the world-renowned hot-water and steam phenomena. Involved were some of the earth's biggest explosions, which have had no apparent counterpart in recorded human history. A few extremely explosive eruptions have occurred historically, however, such as the one that took place on the uninhabited island of Krakatoa, between Java and Sumatra in the East Indies, during the latter part of August 1883. For several days this island had been shaken by a series of violent explosions. Then, on August 27, it was ripped by an explosion that was heard as far away as Australia, a distance of about 3,000 miles. Fifty-mile-high dust clouds became windborne around the globe, producing colorful sunrises and sunsets in all parts of the world for several years. When the air around Krakatoa finally cleared, it was found that two-thirds of the island, some 12 square miles, had collapsed and vanished into the sea. Though the Krakatoa eruption resulted in a caldera that is only a small fraction of the size of the one in Yellowstone, it provides a mental picture to help us understand what has been discovered about the great volcanic holocaust in Yellowstone National Park that was described briefly in an early part of this report.

Near the beginning of the Quaternary Period a vast quantity of molten rock had again accumulated deep within the earth beneath Yellowstone. This time, in contrast to Absaroka volcanism, the magma was charged with highly explosive materials which eventually caused two caldera-making eruptions, one 2,000,000 years ago and the other 600,000 years ago. Because both eruptions affected the central part of the Park, the features related to the older one were largely destroyed by the activity associated with the younger one. Thus, the outline of the volcanic caldera we now see in the Yellowstone landscape is chiefly the one that formed 600,000 years ago (fig. 22). The sequence of events described in the following pages, and illustrated diagrammatically in figure 23, is based on studies of this later eruption; the pattern for the 2,000,000-year-old eruption probably was similar.

OUTLINE OF THE YELLOWSTONE CALDERA produced by the enormous volcanic eruption 600,000 years ago. The two oval-shaped areas are resurgent domes that arched the caldera floor over twin magma chambers after the eruption. The margins of the resurgent domes are surrounded by ring fracture zones which extend outward toward the edge of the caldera. Numerous fractures in these zones provided escape routes through which lavas of the Plateau Rhyolite oozed to the surface and poured out across the caldera floor. Today these zones also provide underground channels for the circulation of hot water in the Yellowstone thermal system. The area outlined by the dotted line shows the smaller and younger inner caldera now occupied by the West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake. (Based on information supplied by R. L. Christiansen and H. R. Blank, Jr.; the existence of a caldera in Yellowstone National Park was first recognized by F. R. Boyd in the late 1950's.) (Fig. 22)

The eruption

The giant reservoir of molten rock that built up beneath the Park area fed two large magma chambers that rose to within a few thousand feet of the surface. As the pressures increased, the overlying ground arched, stretched, and cracked (fig. 23A). Small amounts of lava began to flow out through the cracks in places, but finally, in a great surge of rapid, violently explosive eruptions, first from one chamber and then the other, mountains of hot pumice, ash, and rock debris spewed from the earth (fig. 23B). The dense, swirling masses of erupted material spread out across the countryside in extremely fast moving ash flows, swept along by hot expanding gases trapped within them. Large quantities of ash and dust were also blown high into the air and dispersed by the wind. Thin layers of airborne volcanic ash from Yellowstone are now found throughout much of the central and western United States.

CALDERA DEVELOPMENT. Schematic diagrams showing idealized stages in the development of the Yellowstone caldera 600,000 years ago. The scales shown in Diagram A are approximately the size of the features in Yellowstone. Although only one magma chamber is pictured in the diagrams, two chambers were involved in the Yellowstone eruption. (Based on information supplied by R. L. Christiansen and H. R. Blank, Jr.)

A, A large magma chamber formed deep within the earth, and the molten rock began to force its way slowly toward the surface. As it pushed upward, it arched the overlying rocks into a broad dome. The arching produced a series of concentric fractures, or a ring fracture zone, around the crest of the dome. The fractures extended downward toward the top of the magma chamber.

B, The ring fractures eventually tapped the magma chamber, the uppermost part of which contained a high proportion of dissolved gases. With the sudden release of pressure, tremendous amounts of hot gases and molten rock were erupted almost instantly. The liquid solidified into pumice, ash, and dust as it was blown out. Some of the dust and ash was blown high into the air and carried along by the wind, but much of the debris moved outward across the landscape as vast ash flows, covering thousands of square miles very rapidly.

C, The area overlying the blown-out part of the magma chamber collapsed to form a gigantic caldera. The collapse took place mostly along normal faults that developed from the fractures in the ring fracture zone. The depth of the collapse was probably several thousand feet.

D, Renewed rise of molten rock domed the caldera floor above the magma chamber. A series of rhyolite lava flows poured out through fractures in the surrounding ring fracture zone and spread across the caldera floor. (Fig. 23)

The ash flows (fig. 23B), as they sped across the Yellowstone countryside, first filled the old canyons and valleys that had been eroded into the Absaroka volcanic pile and older rocks during Pliocene time. Eventually much of this older landscape was buried by ash. Some of the larger highlands, such as Mount Washburn and adjacent ridges and Bunsen Peak, however, stood well above the level of the sweeping ash flows; so the debris flowed around them rather than across them (fig. 21). Finally coming to rest, the hot pumice, ash, and rock particles settled down in vast horizontal sheets (fig. 24). Upon cooling and crystallizing, the particles welded together to form a series of compact rocks with the composition of rhyolite (figs. 15 and 25). The term "ash-flow tuff" (also, the term "welded tuff") is commonly used to describe these rocks, which now make up the Yellowstone Tuff (fig. 5).

ORIGINAL EXTENT OF THE YELLOWSTONE TUFF (ash-flow tuff) that covered most of Yellowstone National Park about 600,000 years ago. The tuff was erupted explosively from the ring fracture zones of the Yellowstone caldera. The outline of the caldera is shown by the dashed line. (Based on information supplied by R. L. Christiansen and H. R. Blank, Jr.) (Fig. 24)

YELLOWSTONE TUFF AT GOLDEN GATE. The rocks consist of layered ash-flow tuff; the height of the cliff is about 200 feet. Closeup B shows typical characteristics of the tuff in most outcrop areas. Of the light-colored materials, the larger masses are compressed pumice fragments and the smaller masses are pumice, feldspar, and quartz. The dark grains are chiefly magnetite and pyroxene. Closeup A is of a coarse grained specimen from Tuff Cliff. The large fragments are mostly crystallized pumice, and the light-colored matrix is composed of very fine particles of volcanic ash and dust. (Fig. 25)

The collapse

With the sudden removal of hundreds of cubic miles of molten rock from underground, the roofs of the twin magma chambers collapsed. Enormous blocks of rock fell in above each of the chambers, and a great crater, or caldera, broke the ground surface in central Yellowstone (fig. 23C). The exact depth to which the original surface collapsed is unknown, but it must have been several thousand feet. The subsidence took place chiefly along large vertical, or normal, faults in the ring fracture zones above the margins of the magma chambers (fig. 22). Abundant, though less extensive, normal faults also formed outside the caldera proper, as the surrounding areas adjusted to the staggering impact of the explosive eruptions and subsequent collapse.

Because the Yellowstone caldera now lies partly buried by thick lava flows, the appearance of the caldera today is not nearly as impressive as it must have been when the caldera was first formed. Many of the important features, however, are particularly well exposed in the vicinity of Canyon Village (fig. 26). The steep south slope of the nearby Washburn Range (fig. 4) marks the north edge of the caldera, and the range itself stands high because it was not involved in the collapse. Canyon Village, on the other hand, lies at a much lower elevation within the caldera proper. Turnouts on the road just south of Dunraven Pass provide especially fine views of the northern part of the caldera, and on a clear day Flat Mountain and the Red Mountains, which mark the south edge of the caldera, south of Yellowstone Lake, can be seen 50 miles away. As might be expected, the large basin occupied by Yellowstone Lake owes its existence in part to caldera collapse. The south edge of the caldera cuts across the south-central part of the lake, along Flat Mountain Arm and the north tip of the Promontory; the east edge coincides approximately with the east edge of the lake north of Southeast Arm (fig. 27). Also, the prominent bluffs north of the Madison River near Madison Junction mark part of the north rim of the caldera.

GEOLOGIC CROSS SECTION showing generalized relationships along the north edge of the Yellowstone caldera in the Mount Washburn—Canyon area (line of section labeled D—D' on pl. 1). The caldera subsided along normal faults in the ring fracture zone, and the Plateau Rhyolite (lava flows) poured out across the caldera floor between 600,000 and 500,000 years ago. The faults cut across the central intrusive igneous core of the 50-million-year-old (Eocene) Washburn volcano; the north half of the volcano is still preserved, but the south half subsided as part of the caldera and is now buried by lava flows. (Based on information supplied by H. J. Prostka and R. L. Christiansen.) (Fig. 26)

YELLOWSTONE LAKE. View southeast across Yellowstone Lake toward the western foothills and crest of the Absaroka Range. The Absaroka Range is an erosional remnant of a vast pile of volcanic lavas and breccias (Absaroka volcanic rocks) that once covered all of Yellowstone; the lake occupies part of the Yellowstone caldera. (Fig. 27).

The outpouring of lava

The final violent eruption 600,000 years ago, although releasing much of the explosive energy of the gases contained in the magma, did not quell all potential volcanic activity in the twin chambers. Molten rock again rose in both of them, and in a few hundreds or thousands of years the overlying caldera floor was domed over the two chambers. One of these prominent domes lies near Old Faithful and the other east of Hayden Valley (figs. 22 and 23D). Soon, too, the magma found its way upward through the wide ring fracture zones encircling the caldera. Pouring out rather quietly from many openings (fig. 23D), the lavas flooded the caldera floor and began to fill the still-smoldering pit. The first lavas appeared soon after the collapse 600,000 years ago, and the latest ones only 60,000-75,000 years ago. The flows were confined chiefly to the caldera proper, but here and there they spilled out across the rim, particularly toward the southwestern part of the Park (fig. 28). Some flows also erupted along fractures outside the caldera, the most prominent flow being the very famous one at Obsidian Cliff (fig. 29).

RADAR IMAGE of a part of southwestern Yellowstone National Park. The lobate landforms are the edges of a lava flow of the Plateau Rhyolite that forms the Pitchstone Plateau (fig. 1). The low concentric ridges that parallel the toe of the flow are pressure ridges produced by the wrinkling of the nearly solidified crust of lava along the edge of the flow. (Image courtesy of National Aeronautics and Space Administration.) (click on image for an enlargement in a new window) (Fig. 28)

OBSIDIAN CLIFF, Jim Bridger's famous "mountain of glass." The rock is rhyolite lava which contains a high proportion of obsidian, a kind of black volcanic glass. Note columnar jointing along the sides of the cliff, similar to that shown by the basalt flows at Tower (fig. 33). The cliff is approximately 200 feet high. (Fig. 29)

The chief rock type in the lava flows is rhyolite, similar in composition to the welded tuffs erupted earlier but different in other major characteristics. The rock, for example, shows much contorted layering as evidence of having flowed as a thick liquid across the ground (fig. 30). A coarse brecciated texture is also a common feature, well shown by lavas along the Firehole Canyon drive (fig. 31). Locally, some parts of the flows cooled so rapidly that few crystals formed, and the lava solidified mainly into a natural glass (fig. 32).

THICK RHYOLITE LAVA FLOW along west bank of Firehole River. Closeup view is of a cut surface of rhyolite showing the striking banding that results from the flowage of viscous molten rock. The dark bands are chiefly concentrations of volcanic glass (also some cavities), and the light bands are concentrations of tiny crystals of feldspar and quartz. (Fig. 30)

BRECCIATED RHYOLITE LAVA FLOWS along the Firehole Canyon drive. As a lava flow moves outward from its center of eruption, a chilled crust develops along its upper surface and outer edges because of the cooler temperatures in those parts of the flow. Continued movement of the still-molten rock in the interior of the flow causes this crust to break up (brecciate) into angular blocks. The blocks are then tumbled along until the whole mass finally solidifies. (Fig. 31)

OUTCROP OF GLASSY RHYOLITE LAVA along the road between Canyon Village and Norris Junction. The conspicuous lines in the face of the rock outline different layers produced by lava flowage. In closeup A, dark parts of the rock are volcanic glass (closeup B shows glassy fracture) and light-colored crystals are quartz (blocky) and feldspar (tabular). The feldspar crystals are alined parallel to the direction of flow. (Fig. 32)

About 30 different flows have been recognized. Grouped within a major rock unit called the Plateau Rhyolite (fig. 5), they cover more than 1,000 square miles. The gently rolling plateau surface of central Yellowstone, broken here and there by clusters of low-lying hills and ridges, is essentially the landscape that characterized the upper surfaces of the lava flows soon after they cooled and solidified. Natural valleys formed between some of the adjacent flows, and in places streams still follow these readymade channels. Rhyolite, in both lava flows and ash-flow tuffs, is by far the predominant rock type seen along the Park roads.

Several basalt flows were erupted along with the more common rhyolite flows, and in the vicinity of Tower Falls they form some of the most unusual rock units in the whole Park area (fig. 33). As the flows cooled, contraction cracks broke the basalt into a series of upright many-sided columns; from a distance they appear as a solid row of fenceposts. They are now covered by younger rocks, but if one could see the upper flat surface of the basalt layers where just the ends of the columns are sticking out, the pattern would be like that seen in a honeycomb.

TWO LEDGES OF BASALT spectacularly exposed in the east wall of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone at The Narrows near Tower Falls. Pronounced columnar jointing of the basalt is seen at close range (bottom photograph) at the edge of the road on the opposite (west) side of the canyon. Inset shows the dense character of the black basalt, which consists of microscopic crystals of feldspar, pyroxene, olivine, and magnetite. The light-colored rocks between the basalt flows (top photograph) are ancient stream gravels deposited about 1-1/2 million years ago, when the channel of the Yellowstone River was farther east and not as deep as it is today. The hill is capped by lake sediments, sand, and gravel deposited when the Yellowstone River was blocked by a glacial dam farther downstream (to the left). The brown rocks at the base of the cliff are Absaroka andesite breccias. (Fig. 33)

During the eruptions of the Plateau Rhyolite, at least one relatively small caldera-making event occurred in the central Yellowstone region. This "inner" caldera developed sometime between 125,000 and 200,000 years ago, forming the deep depression now filled by the West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake (fig. 22). Like the main Yellowstone caldera, but on a much smaller scale, it formed as a direct result of the explosive eruption of rhyolitic ash flows and subsequent collapse of an oval-shaped area approximately 4 miles wide and 6 miles long. West Thumb is nearly the same size as Crater Lake, Oregon, which occupies one of the world's best-known calderas.

With the outpouring of the last lava flows 60,000-75,000 years ago, the forces of Quaternary volcanism finally died down. The hot-water and steam activity, however, still remains as a vivid reminder of Yellowstone's volcanic past. But who can say even now that we are witnessing the final stage of volcanism? Someday, quite conceivably, there might be yet another outburst of molten rock—only time, of course, will tell.

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Last Updated: 18-Jan-2007