Yellowstone caldera swelling

This is a story about space technology and why we orbit satellites, geography, geology, the risks of living in certain places, and the fun, and perhaps life-saving value, of finding things out. Uplift in the Yellowstone Caldera - USGS image

This is the kind of science news that excites normal kids and lends outcroppings on which to hang a lesson plan or class warm up: The Yellowstone Caldera is uplifting, according to new satellite measurements. Don’t worry. Yet.

It is not a major uplift, measuring only about five inches. Larger uplifts are not uncommon. The uplift occurred over several years. This uplift is thought by some scientists to indicate a flow of magma 12 to 15 kilometers underground.

Someday, it could explode, again. That day will make Mt. St. Helens’ more recent eruption look like a quiet hiccough.

According to the USGS site:

Yellowstone and other caldera systems are well-known for their continual ups and downs (see our Fact Sheet Tracking Changes in Yellowstone’s Restless Volcanic System). The ground surface can rise for decades, and then switch to a period of subsidence. At Yellowstone, scientists measured over two feet of uplift during the period 1923-1985, followed by a shorter period of subsidence. Until the 1990s, it was thought that all the ups and downs occurred in the central part of the Yellowstone caldera, near its two resurgent domes (see second image in the Fact Sheet Tracking Changes in Yellowstone’s Restless Volcanic System).

This March 2006, the journal Nature published a paper by YVO scientist Charles Wicks and colleagues about a period of uplift in the northern part of the Yellowstone caldera (Wicks, et al., 2006). It describes an uplift of 12 cm (~5 inches) that occurred between 1997 and 2003, at a time when other changes were occurring in the vicinity (see Notable Changes in Thermal Activity at Norris Geyser Basin Provide Opportunity to Study Hydrothermal System). Since that time, the area, including the Norris Geyser Basin, has stopped moving, while uplift has returned to the central part of the caldera and the resurgent domes (see the YVO activity update and the Horizontal Ground Motion and Time Series page for the most recent information).

How can this be used in the classroom? Here are a few ideas.

First, as part of a unit on Yellowstone and its geothermal features, this is a timely hook. The fact that we have this massive caldera, which has exploded in the past, should be hook enough. Yellowstone features the world’s greatest concentration of geysers. It was explored by one of the Lewis and Clark party. The features described were so fantastic, people didn’t believe them true, until Charles Moran and other painters brought back awe-inspiring pictures. We had a unit on Yellowstone each of the three years I spent in public schools in Idaho. It was worth it.

Second, you can use this to get kids to think about geographic connections. Nebraska, for example, has a state park, Ashfall Beds, containing fossils of animals burned and smothered by hot ash from a volcano in the Yellowstone Caldera (now it’s a National Natural Landmark). Get out your maps: See how far apart they are? When the caldera blows, how far away must one be to be safe? Check out the lava flows in southern Idaho, around Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho. Those flows, and their nearby cinder cones, used to be over the hot spot which now makes the Yellowstone Caldera dangerous. How far does lava flow? How much of the U.S. is moved from where it was? Did you know astronauts bound for the Moon actually trained at Craters of the Moon?

Third, you can talk about disaster readiness, particularly about how no place is wholly safe from everything (see the Ashfall Beds in Nebraska). How would an eruption of the caldera change life in the U.S., assuming it didn’t smoke us all? Can governments prepare for such huge natural disasters? This is a good place to throw in some history, especially about the 1959 Montana-Yellowstone Earthquake and its effects.

This is also a good time and place to discuss predictions of disasters. Disaster prediction is a tricky business. With general precautions, where in the U.S. would not be mostly safe to live?

Fourth, you can encourage some useful tourism of Yellowstone National Park and America’s other parks. There are about 300 million Americans now. About 2.5 million people go through Yellowstone Park in a year. I think every American ought to have the chance to see it, but at this rate, it can never happen. There are many other National Parks and Monuments that don’t get visited enough, either, and we should as teachers encourage kids to travel. Have they seen Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains? The Blue Ridge Parkway? America’s largest park, New York’s Adirondack Park? Half Dome at Yosemite? The glacier-carved hanging valleys in Glacier National Park? Big Bend? Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor? Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty?

The kids ought to go. (And their parents should take them, because they need to see these things, too.)

These are the most relevant Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) points, from the state’s prescribed world geography curriculum:

(3) Geography. Such a student understands how physical processes shape patterns in the physical environment (lithosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere, and biosphere), including how Earth-Sun relationships affect physical processes and patterns on Earth’s surface.

The student is expected to:
(A) attribute occurrences of weather phenomena and climate to annual changes in Earth-Sun relationships; and
(B) describe physical environment of regions and the physical processes that affect these regions such as weather, tectonic forces, wave action, freezing and thawing, gravity, and soil-building processes.

Tip of the old scrub brush to Ralph Maughn’s Wildlife News.

5 Responses to Yellowstone caldera swelling

  1. Ed Darrell says:

    Thanks for weighing in, Sarah! I’ll act on your criticism just as soon as I divine what it is.


  2. sarah says:

    this website is horrible


  3. […] Bathtub post on the swelling of the Yellowstone Caldera, and how to track it, from April 2007; includes links to USGS tracking of the swelling of the caldera, from 1923 through 2000, and other details […]


  4. […] first post I read was about the swelling caldera in Yellowstone National Park. For those who don’t know, a caldera is a sort of inverted, underground volcano (in simple […]


  5. […] for origins of life in Yellowstone’s hot springs A few hours ago I posted a notice on satellite studies of the uplifting of a part of the Yellowstone Caldera, and I suggested some (weak) links to how to use it in the classroom. In passing I noted that the […]


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