What Happens if the Yellowstone Volcano Erupts?

Written by August Buck
Published: July 31, 2022
© Lillac/Shutterstock.com
Share this post on:

Knowing that Yellowstone National Park rests atop an active supervolcano, it begs the question: what happens if the Yellowstone Volcano erupts? Whether you were aware or not, Yellowstone is full of volcanic activity and evidence, and it has a long history of volcanic eruptions. But what does that mean for the park today, and what might happen should the volcano erupt nowadays?

In this article, we will go over what might happen should the Yellowstone Volcano hypothetically erupt. While there’s very little evidence to suggest that this will happen in our lifetime, knowing that Yellowstone rests atop an active volcano is enough to make you wonder! Here’s a completely hypothetical illustration of what might happen if the Yellowstone Volcano erupts!

What Happens if the Yellowstone Volcano Erupts: An Overview

What Happens if the Yellowstone Volcano Erupts
It’s difficult to say just how large of an eruption it would be, given Yellowstone National Park’s volcanic history.

©iStock.com/Bartfett

There are a number of things that could potentially happen should the Yellowstone Volcano ever erupt. The first thing that would occur before any true eruption or severe volcanic activity would be a number of earthquakes. Volcanic eruptions and earthquakes go hand in hand, as earthquakes shift and adjust the crust of the earth enough for lava and magma to erupt forth.

After countless earthquakes, ranging in size and severity, an eruption would be imminent. It’s difficult to say just how large of an eruption it would be, given Yellowstone National Park’s volcanic history. Only three eruptions were considered supervolcanic eruptions, though there have been roughly 80 other smaller eruptions in Yellowstone’s lifetime.

No matter the size of the eruption, ash and debris will spew forth from the volcano, right alongside lava and rocks. But just how much ash and volcanic material can we expect, based on past data? Let’s take a deep dive into what a volcanic eruption at this potential scale looks like!

Yellowstone Volcanic Eruption: Ash and Debris

What Happens if the Yellowstone Volcano Erupts
Looking at past figures, Yellowstone’s initial supervolcanic eruptions that occurred millions of years ago produced far more debris than Mt. St. Helens.

©iStock.com/SergeYatunin

It’s difficult to fathom the scope of a volcanic super eruption. Many of us remember when Mt. St. Helens erupted in 1980, sending ash as far as the central United States, with smaller particles traveling around the entire globe! However, the eruption of Mt. St. Helens produced roughly a tenth of a cubic mile’s worth of ash and debris. What about the hypothetical Yellowstone Volcano eruption?

Looking at past figures, Yellowstone’s initial supervolcanic eruptions that occurred millions of years ago produced far more debris than Mt. St. Helens. In fact, between the three huge eruptions that formed three calderas within Yellowstone National Park, they produced over 900 cubic miles of debris and ash!

Putting this into perspective, if the Yellowstone Volcano were to erupt at this level of intensity today, over 3-4 feet of ash would fall upon the nearby states of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and Idaho, and lesser amounts would continue to fall on surrounding states. Enough ash and debris would be produced to cover the entire United States in an inch or so, at a minimum.

Ash and debris doesn’t sound all that bad, right? Well, 3-4 feet of ash falling all at once is enough to destroy buildings, infrastructure, and public transportation options. Plane travel would grind to a halt, and many many lives would be lost. While this amount of ash wouldn’t fall everywhere, even a little ash is enough to mortally affect the respiratory system, make driving dangerous, and kill countless crops and animals.

Yellowstone Volcanic Eruption: Earthquakes and Lava Flows

What Happens if the Yellowstone Volcano Erupts
Lava flows can’t travel as far as ash can, and only 50 miles of Yellowstone National Park is likely to be affected by scorching hot lava.

©Susanne Pommer/Shutterstock.com

Any volcanic eruption would be obvious based on the amount of earthquakes preceding it. Yellowstone National Park already experiences a number of earthquakes each and every year, but these would be nothing compared to the earthquakes that come before a hypothetical eruption. Destruction within the park and nearby towns would be obvious, and evacuations would be necessary.

If the earthquakes didn’t make an eruption obvious enough, lava flows should help the Yellowstone Volcano make its point! Thankfully, lava flows can’t travel as far as ash can, and only 50 miles of Yellowstone National Park is likely to be affected by scorching hot lava. However, there’s one more surprising effect that volcanic eruptions have on our planet, and it’s the opposite of burning hot magma: our planet’s temperature would decrease exponentially.

Yellowstone Volcanic Eruption: A Cooling Planet

What Happens if the Yellowstone Volcano Erupts
A Yellowstone supervolcano eruption could produce enough particles to cool the entire planet by multiple degrees- and for multiple years.

©iStock.com/BigshotD3

Given the potential size of a Yellowstone volcanic eruption, there’s no telling just how much ash and debris will be released into the air. However, any size of volcanic activity releases particles into our atmosphere that block and reflect harsh UV rays and sunlight. This leads to a reduction in temperature, and a Yellowstone supervolcano could produce enough of these particles to cool the entire planet by multiple degrees- and for multiple years.

While this may sound like a positive thing given our planet’s current temperature, this stark shift into colder temperatures would likely be devastating enough to alter crop production and agriculture. A supervolcano eruption the likes of which Yellowstone could potentially produce is world-changing, no matter how intense it ends up being!

What are the Chances of the Yellowstone Volcano Erupting?

What Happens if the Yellowstone Volcano Erupts
Given the potential size of a Yellowstone volcanic eruption, there’s no telling just how much ash and debris will be released into the air.

©iStock.com/SergeYatunin

The chances of the Yellowstone Volcano erupting are exceedingly rare, if nonexistent. Many studies suggest that the volcano will not erupt in our lifetimes, and it may not erupt within the next thousand years, even. In fact, some scientists and researchers employed by Yellowstone National Park suggest that the volcano may never erupt again. 

While it is better to be safe than sorry, it’s extremely unlikely that we will ever face the devastation of the Yellowstone volcano erupting- and thank goodness for that!


The Featured Image

shutterstock_602444258
Yellowstone National Park is home to several ungulate species, including grizzly bears, pronghorns, white-tailed deer, badgers, otters, and badgers
© Lillac/Shutterstock.com

Share this post on:
About the Author

I am a non-binary freelance writer working full-time in Oregon. Graduating Southern Oregon University with a BFA in Theatre and a specialization in creative writing, I have an invested interest in a variety of topics, particularly Pacific Northwest history. When I'm not writing personally or professionally, you can find me camping along the Oregon coast with my high school sweetheart and Chihuahua mix, or in my home kitchen, perfecting recipes in a gleaming cast iron skillet.

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.