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Active geologic processes associated with the Yellowstone hotspot are fundamental in shaping the landscapes of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem (GYE), a high volcanic plateau flanked by a crescent of still higher mountainous terrain. The processes associated with the Yellowstone hotspot are volcanism, faulting, and uplift and are observed in the geology at the surface. We attribute the driving forces responsible for the northeastward progression of these processes to a thermal plume rising through the Earth’s mantle into the base of the southwest-moving North American plate. This progression began 16 million years ago (Ma) near the Nevada-Oregon border and arrived at Yellowstone about 2 Ma. Before arrival of the hotspot, an older landscape existed, particularly mountains created during the Laramide orogeny about 70–50 Ma and volcanic terrain formed by Absaroka andesitic volcanism mostly between 50–45 Ma. These landscapes were more muted than the present, hotspot-modified landscape because the Laramide-age mountains had worn down and an erosion surface of low relief had developed on the Absaroka volcanic terrain.
The Yellowstone Plateau was built by hotspot volcanism of rhyolitic lavas and caldera-forming rhyolite tuffs (ignimbrites). Streams eroding back into the edges of this plateau have created scenic waterfalls and canyons such as the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and Lewis Canyon. Rhyolite is poor in plant nutrients and forms sandy, well-drained soils that support the monotonous, fire-adapted lodgepole pine forests of the Yellowstone Plateau. Non-rhyolitic rocks surround this plateau and sustain more varied vegetation, including spruce, fir, and whitebark pine forests broken by grassy meadows. Heat from the hotspot rises upward and drives Yellowstone’s famed geysers, hot springs, and mudpots. These thermal waters are home to specialized, primitive ecosystems, rich in algae and bacteria. The rock alteration associated with hydrothermal systems creates the bright colors of Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon.
Basin-and-range-style faulting has accompanied migration of the hotspot to Yellowstone and formed the linear mountains and valleys that occur north and south of the hotspot track, which is the present-day eastern Snake River Plain. High rates of basin-and-range faulting occurred adjacent to the migrating Yellowstone hotspot, creating distinctive landscapes within the GYE such as the Teton Range/Jackson Hole, with characteristic rugged, forested ranges and adjacent flat-floored grassy valleys. The difference in altitude between the mountains and valleys provides a topographic gradient in which vegetation maturation advances with altitude; animal-migration patterns also follow this trend. The valleys provide natural meadows, agricultural land, town sites, and corridors for roads.
Uplift of the GYE by as much as 1 km (3,000 ft) during the last 5 million years has resulted in ongoing erosion of deep, steep-walled valleys. Many prominent ecological characteristics of Yellowstone derive from this hotspot-induced uplift, including the moderate- to high- altitude terrain and associated cool temperatures and deep snowfall.
Modern and Pleistocene climate and associated vegetation patterns strongly relate to the topography created by the hotspot and its track along the eastern Snake River Plain. Winter air masses from the moist northern Pacific Ocean traverse the topographic low of the Snake River Plain to where orographic rise onto the Yellowstone Plateau and adjacent mountains produces deep snow. A winter precipitation shadow forms on the lee (eastern) sides of the GYE. During Pleistocene glacial times, this moisture conduit provided by the hotspot-track-produced ice-age glaciers that covered the core of the present GYE. These glaciers sculpted bedrock and produced glacial moraines that are both forested and unforested, sand and gravel of ice-marginal streams and outwash gravels that are commonly covered with sagebrush-grassland, and silty lake sediments that are commonly covered by lush grassland such as Hayden Valley.
The effects of the Yellowstone hotspot also profoundly shaped the human history in the GYE. Uplift associated with the hotspot elevates the GYE to form the Continental Divide, and streams drain radially outward like spokes from a hub. Inhabitants of the GYE 12,000–10,000 years ago, as well as more recent inhabitants, followed the seasonal green-up of plants and migrating animals up into the mountain areas. During European immigration, people settled around Yellowstone in the lower parts of the drainages and established roads, irrigation systems, and cultural associations. The core Yellowstone highland is too harsh for agriculture and inhospitable to people in the winter. Beyond this core, urban and rural communities exist in valleys and are separated by upland areas. The partitioning inhibits any physical connection of communities, which in turn complicates pursuit of common interests across the whole GYE. Settlements thus geographically isolated evolved as diverse, independent communities.