Wyoming State Geological Survey
     Wallace Ulrich
     Director, WSGS
Wyoming State Geological Survey
P.O. Box 1347
Laramie, WY 82073


News Release
October 19, 2011


New Yellowstone Website Provides Interactive Maps on Volcanic Activity

The Yellowstone Plateau in northwestern Wyoming has a long geologic history – earthquakes, expanding and retreating glaciers, rising mountains, powerful geothermal explosions, and cataclysmic volcanic eruptions, the most recent of which was the Yellowstone Supervolcano, which erupted 640,000 years ago. Today, the region is a geologic marvel, with one of the largest remaining ecosystems in North America and the world’s largest concentration of geysers.

The Wyoming State Geological Survey’s (WSGS) Yellowstone Geologic Geographic Information System (GIS) Database at www.wsgs.wyo.gov/Yellowstone is a new interactive website providing researchers and students alike with a look into Yellowstone’s geologic past and present.

“Geologically, the Yellowstone area is one of the most interesting places in the world,” said Wallace Ulrich, director of the WSGS. “This website was designed to gain a better understanding of the Yellowstone hotspot where a future volcanic eruption, fracturing, or the release of geothermal fluids from the caldera may occur,” he said. “We are offering this resource to the public so they can learn more about the past and current geologic activity in the region.”

Interactive maps illustrate the geology, earthquakes, and hydrothermal areas that make up Yellowstone National Park. The site includes downloadable GIS data sets that allow students and researchers to view layers ranging from past geologic events, to satellite imagery, lake bathymetry, and volcano monitoring equipment in the park. The data can also be viewed via Google Earth with 3D visualizations of the area.

The WSGS created the website as an educational information portal, representing a major collaboration between the WSGS and staff of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). “The aim of this project was to have a central repository of GIS information so we could collectively improve our efforts to identify, display, and analyze volcanic activity in Yellowstone,” Ulrich said.

The WSGS Yellowstone Geologic GIS Database website includes:

  • More than 20 data sets available to download (individually or combined)
    • High resolution LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) and digital elevation models
    • Earthquake data (historical and current)
    • Geology (bedrock, surface, geothermal, etc.)
    • Hydrography (bathymetry of Yellowstone Lake)
    • Other information (trails, place names, boundaries)
  • Interactive Mapping Application
    • Live webcams
    • USGS Live Earthquake Feed
    • Ability to search earthquakes in the park by magnitude and date
    • Print map feature
  • Media Gallery
    • High resolution photos of the park
    • Videos of the Yellowstone Caldera by the USGS

The website’s main feature is a searchable map of Yellowstone that was created by combining data from a variety of state and federal sources into a single GIS database. The interactive map includes an overlay of colors representing different types and ages of rock. A user can then add various layers to the map such as topography, imagery (with zoom capability), and even query a search of earthquakes in the area by typing in a minimum and/or maximum magnitude and the years of interest.

“This map will be a tremendous resource for students interested in Yellowstone or learning about the area’s geology, past earthquakes, and volcanic activity,” Ulrich said. This project would not be possible without the support of US Sen. Mike Enzi, and former member of Congress, Rep. Barbara Cubin, as well as US Sen. John Barrasso, and US Rep. Cynthia Lummis, he said. “I would also like to thank Dr. John Eichelberger with the USGS and his team of scientists as well as acknowledge all the work of our staff with the WSGS toward this project.”

The present Yellowstone Plateau developed through volcanic cycles spanning two million years that included some of the world's largest known eruptions. The Yellowstone region includes three calderas: the first cycle caldera formed 2.1 million years ago during the eruption of the Huckleberry Ridge Tuff, the Henry’s Fork Caldera formed 1.3 million years ago, near the town of Island Park, and the Yellowstone Caldera formed 640,000 years ago during the eruption of the Lava Creek Tuff, an event that spread ash over much of the North American continent. Since this time there have been approximately 80 additional but smaller eruptions such as lava flows. The youngest of these range from 70,000 to 160,000 years old.

“Interestingly,” said Ulrich, “the volcanic events that formed Yellowstone were not the products of many million years of geologic change ending many millions of years ago; we are seeing a time scale compressed into only the last 2.1 million years.” For the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, geologists and volcanologists study in detail the latest periods of geologic time, the Pliocene and the Quaternary, covering the last 5 million years out of 4,500 million.

Yellowstone’s geologic story also includes earthquakes such as the Hebgen Lake earthquake of 1959 near West Yellowstone (magnitude 7.5). “This was a major earthquake,” said Jacob Lowenstern, scientist in charge of the USGS Yellowstone Volcano Observatory. “It fractured geothermal reservoirs in Yellowstone, creating new geysers and destroying others. Flow rates and temperatures of hundreds of hot springs changed over night,” he said.

Data collection and the mapping efforts of the WSGS are intended to further research and information on Yellowstone’s geologic past and future. “With this Web-based tool, we have assembled data from a host of research entities into a single searchable format,” Ulrich said. “This website will be continually updated providing us with the opportunity to interpret the past and hopefully plan for the future of Yellowstone,” he said. “And if the past gives us a glimpse for what is to come, we know the Yellowstone landscape will continue to change.”

Also available on the WSGS website (www.wsgs.wyo.gov) is a link to information on landslides in the state. The WSGS has mapped more than 30,000 landslides in Wyoming, and maintains an active database of these locations.