The Yellowstone Earthquake Swarm of 2010 marches on

Steaming, gurgling mudpots in the active hydrothermal system of Yellowstone.

For those of you following Yellowstone (I think there might be a few of you), I've plotted up the earthquakes since 1/27 (see below) - and sure enough, although there is a lot of scatter, they are getting shallower - however what this exactly means is unclear. You can see my plots from 1/22-28 here. As many of you have mentioned, a caldera like Yellowstone is a big interconnected system, so a solely tectonic source of this is still possible as the displacement migrates through the fractured caldera rocks.

UPDATED: Now with error bars! The line divides the well constrained (to left) from the poorly constrained (to right).

This all being said, YVO's current status statement still reads:

At this time, YVO scientists and their collaborators have detected no anomalous ground deformation, strain, or increased thermal activity that could indicate precursory activity to phenomena such as steam explosions or volcanic eruptions. As such, the Volcanic Alert Level remains at Normal (Aviation Color Code of Green)."

So, again, without abundant evidence to suggest otherwise, the swarm has shown no indications that this is magma related. The earthquakes are shallower right now, but again, we need to look at this information with an abundance of caution. YVO posted yesterday a summary of the current earthquake swarm and an brief history of swarms to put this one in context along with a description of all the monitoring that occurs at Yellowstone - so if you are concerned about the swarm, be sure to check it out. This caldera is not solely a magmatic feature - the process of caldera-forming itself involves breaking the crust along a ring fracture. This means that the area is littered with thousands (millions?) of fault systems related to the caldera. Trust me, I'd be fascinated by the idea that a new dome might be erupting at Yellowstone (i.e., NOT A SUPERVOLCANIC ERUPTION), which is the mostly likely scenario, but until the evidence tells me otherwise, this doesn't look like it.

More like this

Yeah, your plot definitely does not show as much upward change as mine - I think it might be the lower limit of magnitude of the quakes chosen. I used what appears on the USGS M1+ feed, but you might be even smaller than that based on the number of earthquakes. In any case, the signal is definitely not clear for either of us.

Even an upwards migrating swarm could be merely more settling taking place. We've already seen expansion/contraction cycles, it makes sense the rubble from 600,000 yrs ago would still have some wiggle room.

And I think if there was any possibility of even a medium eruption, in a fractured system like YS, there'd be a lot more indications of heat. Far more likely if anything happens in the foreseeable future it'll be a hydrothermal explosion (not that I'd want to be in the park when something the size of Dotsero flies up into the air)

Thank you Erik, for this very informative site. I usually visit every day. I have a question on the current Yellowstone swarm, for anyone who can answer. The eastern side of the caldera seems to have experienced a greater amount of recent uplift than the western side, according to the GPS data I saw online. Does that make it LESS likely that this swarm, being towards the west side of the caldera, is related to upward movement of magma?

Shirakawa, thanks for those YouTube videos with the seismic signals converted to audio. Well worth the listen. I'm curious, though, about your station selection. You didn't use YMR (Madison River). I know that station is often noisy with events that don't look like (to my untrained eye) earthquakes. Is that the reason? Again, thanks.

By Christine Snyder (not verified) on 03 Feb 2010 #permalink

@Erik: Yes, I used earthquakes starting from magnitude -2.0 (there aren't many negative magnitude earthquakes, but a lot between M0.0 and M1.0 occurred).

@Christine: the reason is that YMR isn't available for real-time streaming like other nearby stations.

As it would be rather noisy (mostly because of motor vehicles), a better choice would be instead PB.B207.EHZ (of which webicorder view is linked in the YVO page about the current swarm), which also happens to be available for public real-time data stream, but I wanted to take two stations at about the same distance from the swarm and sharing about the same signal response characteristics.

By SHIRAKAWA Akira (not verified) on 03 Feb 2010 #permalink

@Shirakawa: Thanks for the info. I often wondered if that station (YMR) was near a road or walkway when I saw the crescendo-decrescendo events. Anyways, I hope you continue with those.

By Christine Snyder (not verified) on 03 Feb 2010 #permalink

@Christine: yes, YMR is near a road. Check out here:

As for the videos, many people have asked me to continue making them. But as of today, I have accumulated a backlog of 10 days, it's going to take some time to make them all (it's all about the will to start!).

By SHIRAKAWA Akira (not verified) on 03 Feb 2010 #permalink

I've google earth'ed the area to refresh what I saw as a backpacker 26+ years ago. The area of the quakes has some old sinter deposits trending on a NE-SW arc through the area. At least it appeared to be sinter to my then 19-year-old College Freshman Geologist-in-training eyes. The google earth pictures show a lot less trees and even more areas that look like it used to be an ancient hydrothermal area. Perhaps water has rerouted into the system triggering reactivation of some of the system's elements? I would expect to see larger quakes as the system recharges and comes up to pressure, but we're talking days,weeks, months before we get the resulting hydrothermal flow initialization at the surface. I imagine it would start with a bang and then find some new equilibrium.

I wish I had pictures from that portion of the trip, but most of my little 110 Kodak film cartridges (boy that's old!)were later lost before I got them developed.

The YNP system is so hyperactive that this shouldn't be to surprising. On our trip we found an unknown/unmapped geyser 300 yards from Lone Star Geyser Basin on a hill, that was still so fresh that green trees were laying across the vent. Muddy water erupted every 3.5 minutes in a 2 foot wide column that cleared 20 feet. It put Lone Star Geyser to shame. My friend crawled out on the tree to see down the vent throat and just about got roasted as the bark came off the tree and left him dangling above the geyser pool as the clock ticked down to the next showtime. Curious, stupid, take your pick . . . 19 year olds with one year of college are like that! We pulled him out of the way with seconds to spare. I don't know if it is still there, but we named it "Sacrifice Geyser" on our map.

This is from a local Jackson Hole newspaper article and this part really worries me:
"Scientists are split on whether the earthquake clusters indicate Yellowstone is fixinâ to blow big again or whether the tiny tremors are actually beneficial, allowing a safe release of subterranean pressures."

I would be interested in which scientists are thinking it might be something more than business as usual at Yellowstone and which ones are saying it's nothing to worry about.

The quakes started at the top of the magma chamber around 5+ miles deep. My understanding is that this area is a pancake shaped sill of semi solid material which is only 10's of yards deep that sits on top of the magma chamber. Now the quakes have become shallower 4 miles to less than .3 miles for one quake last night. Since the swarm began are they not also moving more to the southwest along the caldera boundry.....isn't this really sort of a bad thing? I check out your site all the time and if it is ok with you I would like to link to it from mine

Randall Nix

Them on Us: Yellowstone Quakes
Wednesday, February 03, 2010
By Jake Nichols
Hole lotta shakinâ goinâ on
Between the film plot of 2012 and the recent Haiti earthquake, nerves are a little frayed in Yellowstone where geologists are closely monitoring a swarm of mini-quakes underway for the past two weeks. Up to 100 small-scale seismic events have been rattling a remote area of Americaâs first national park daily; 1,608 s
ince January 17.

The quake zone is approximately 10 miles northwest of the Old Faithful geyser. Scientists are split on whether the earthquake clusters indicate Yellowstone is fixinâ to blow big again or whether the tiny tremors are actually beneficial, allowing a safe release of subterranean pressures.

The depths of some of the shallower quakes are poorly constrained, with error on the order of +/- 9 km. I think some error bars on the depth plots would be helpful.

Good point, EKoh. The USGS data I used and dumped into excel doesn't list the error in the depth calculations - just the depth itself. If the error bars are large, then its likely the calculation that is causing the apparent change in depth, rather than an actual change. Just taking a quick and dirty look, the last 5 earthquakes on my plot have an average error in depth calculation of +/- 7 km (!) and after that, its closer to +/- 1.2 km. This likely reflects the ability to look at the data more closely with a little time. So, lesson here - look at depths for the most recent events with a critical eye.

You know, as strange a connection as it may be, the HAARP "Induction Magnetometer" displayed EXTREMELY eerie readings at the EXACT time of the Haiti EQ.

It was only some days AFTER this event that Yellowstone began the second largest EQ "swarm" in recorded history.

Further, Europe has been dealing with EQ "swarms" also since Haiti...

The stress seems to be rippling through the earth like a rock thrown onto a lake, I'm gonna make a guess and say this thing is nowhere near over yet...

By The Illuminator (not verified) on 03 Feb 2010 #permalink

If you have an average error in depth calculation of +/- 7 km doesn't that mean the depths could actually be even shallower than what is listed? If the depths ends up being confirmed after it has been reviewed....then would that be a cause for some concern? How about the general movement of the quakes to the Southwest along the caldera boundry over the past few days?

Randall - look for a post tomorrow about the formation and structure of calderas. I think this might help a lot of people better understand why many of these earthquakes occur where they do at Yellowstone.

Also remember that the depth of earthquakes listed for the Yellowstone region is in Km below a height of 1500m above sea level, not below actual ground level at the earthquake epicenter.

By SHIRAKAWA Akira (not verified) on 03 Feb 2010 #permalink

Good point, Shirakawa! I wasn't even thinking about that. Of course, I am not all that worried about it, either.

Erik, I look forward to your blog tomorrow on calderas. I know I will learn something!

BTW, I just want to let the gang here know that I keep watch on Mammoth Mt. (you probably already know that lol)and there seem to be consistent small quakes and not very many, but it keeps going. Most are techtonic as there are at least two faults on Mammoth.

Long Valley has intrigued me since all the activity in the mid '90s. It is such a beautiful area, too. Neat place.

Thanks Erik, I hope I am not asking too many stupid questions. Really I guess what I would like to know more than anything else is that if the quakes really are getting shallower(I know the most recent ones are still to be determined) and if since they started several weeks ago the centers actually are moving SW more or less along the caldera boundry then would that in your opinion be a cause for some concern? Once again please forgive me for asking too many stupid questions and thanks for posting the caldera info.

@Illuminator, about the strange readouts at HAARP.
Are You talking about the lighted middle swath?
Cause that actually starts 2 days before...... could
this be an indicator of large earthquakes to come?
And Thanks for the link to HAARP.

I'm a reader of this great blog and find it all interesting, though admittedly it's the Yellowstone action that got me here in the first place. I understand it's commonplace for swarms at calderas, but I just can't seem to calm myself over this. The what-ifs and the hype and mania are making my head spin.

I understand a "supereruption" is the most rare scenario, but with the vast amount of magma under the caldera and the sheer build up over the years, wouldn't it make one more likely? And if we see harmonic tremor and shallower quakes is it a sure sign of impending eruption?

I hate to just be another "worrier" visiting the blog but I'm finding myself unhealthily obsessing over this.

Knowing what little I know about HAARP (its an extremely long wave radio for communicating real time to subs, isnt it?) I'd think it more likely that HAARP detected the pizo-electric signal from cracking and stressed rocks before the quake, rather than causing the quake. Still a big story if thats whats happened. Earthquake detection?…

@Shannon: It is easy to get caught up in the media's blowing things out of proprotion. I think when Erik writes about calderas and their formation, it will help you to understand better what is going on. Right now, worrying about it isn't going to help. I know you know that, but studying about what you are worried about will help you to understand and then you will probably be able to calm down.

I have been in a number of quakes and right now, I would love to be over there checking things out, but not in the snow! Anyway, it would have to get much more aggressive for me to get a bit on the concerned side. I just wait to see what is going to happen. There are volcanoes all around me at various distances and none of them are doing anything at the moment except Mammoth and it isn't doing much.

If you live close to the area, then have a plan to leave if there is indication that something is going to happen. Think about what you want to take with you and such and just be ready. That is something all of us can do and that is to be as ready as we can for any emergency. I live in an area that can have fires. We get one just about every year and the firefighters are very good about getting on things rather fast. Still, it is a matter of when, not if a fire that will come into town will occur.

Another thing to think about is that we cannot do anything about a volcano or its behavior. Recognizing that and accepting it is a big help. There are a lot of people that live near active volcanoes such as Merapi and they have next to nothing so they stay even if there is danger where they live. So we can look at it from a standpoint of study and how interesting it can be instead of being scared to death.

Learn all you can from here and maybe read about volcanoes from a good source and you will feel much better.

Hope this helps.

Pieced together from stuff I found on WIKI and the USA Today article from Jan 2008 on Lisa Morgans study of hydrothermal threats at YS. Hope this gives a sense of scale and timing.

Smaller explosions in Yellowstone happen about once every two years but rarely when people are around or in danger, according to a 2007 hazard assessment produced by USGS.

In 1989, an explosion at Porkchop geyser at Norris Geyser Basin sent rocks and debris flying more than 200 feet.

Morgan said that over the last 14,000 years there have been 20 hydrothermal explosions in Yellowstone that mostly left craters bigger than football fields. They resulted in well-known Yellowstone landmarks such as Mary Bay, Turbid Lake and Indian Pond, all near the north edge of Yellowstone Lake.

At Mary Bay.... 13,000 yrs ago .... crater that stretches more than one mile across .(Wiki says 5 km) ...The explosion's column may have reached more than a mile in the air and spread debris across some 18 square miles, she said.

The most recent lava flow occurred about 70,000 years ago, while the largest violent eruption excavated the West Thumb of Lake Yellowstone around 150,000 years ago.

The last full-scale eruption of the Yellowstone Supervolcano, the Lava Creek eruption which happened nearly 640,000 years ago, ejected approximately 240 cubic miles (1000 cubic kilometres) of rock and dust into the sky.

Within the past 17 million years, 142 or more caldera-forming eruptions have occurred from the Yellowstone hotspot

The problem is that we can't see all the buildup that went into the catastrophic caldera forming eruptions. For all we know, there could have been a rather large volcano that built in the area that is now the caldera before the whole thing blew. We have no way of knowing as it would have all been pulverized to dust.

So what is now the valley floor could possibly grow into a rather significant mountain before a caldera forming eruption would occur again.

@Diane: Thank you for your words and time. I'm trying to stay rational! :)

I live in central oregon and there has been up lifting in three sister mt range for years now. since yellow stone quake storm there has ben earth quake storm just north of me in moppin in the cascades are they connected?

Hey, I have a question. With the yellowstone mega- volcano ash records the line to the northwest is so straight with no bumps or anything.
I have been told it's most likly the wind patterns but I want to make sure. As it seems a little unlikly to me that the wind would blow the ash like that on three separate occasions. Shouldn't there be some sort of irregularity?

The earth waking up now, as stated a few weeks ago,the pull of the upcoming full moon will effect the movement of the plates, the planets starting to aline creat a greater pull on the earth.effects have been the canary.Be on watch.

The quake today, April 3, 2010 EST, April 4 UTC.makes me more certain that one of the geisers if going to blow big time very, very soon. Something is building and will culminate through volcanic activity..

By Karen Nivens (not verified) on 03 Apr 2010 #permalink

Have either of you checked out the earthquake records for California? There have been over 100 quakes there in the recent past.

Hiay! My sis just posted and I was wondering where were these earthquakes? Were they in Yellowstone? If so I can't find anything mentioning it. If there was a link or any thing that would help.

Hiay! My sis just posted and I was wondering where were these earthquakes? Were they in Yellowstone? If so I can't find anything mentioning it. If there was a link or any thing that would help.

Aldora it happened in Jan-Feb but the YVO is calling a recent smaller April swarm a continuation of the Jan-Feb swarm. This is an old thread.

Hiay! My sis just posted and I was wondering where were these earthquakes? Were they in Yellowstone? If so I can't find anything mentioning it. If there was a link or any thing that would help.

Sorry for the repeats my computer messed up and thank you Randall Nix. Hey this is Reason, do you know if theres any good sites about the ash records?

Aldora I have lots of them right here;)
Just add the www. sorry the spam filter keeps us from posting the complete links here.

Thank you! We're going to go check it out.

By Aldora & Reason (not verified) on 14 Apr 2010 #permalink

Hey does anyone know about how strong and fast the ash cloud from the mega-volcano erutpions would be going? Does anyone know how strong the wind would have to be to divert it? Thanks.

Hallo Reason (man, do I love internet user names!!)

I take it you mean how strong does the wind have to be upwind of the volcano to divert the ash. Basically, it depends. The ash cloud from a large eruption will follow the winds at the various levels of the atmosphere and these can differ, resulting in ash getting blown in two or more different directions at once. But you will generally be ok if you are upwind of the eruption. Even then, you don't want to be too close to the vent, whatever the wind. In the Taupo eruption AD 232, the eruption column was so huge and collapsed so rapidly that the pyroclastic flows blasted out in all directions at enormous speed (up to 700 km/hr by one calculation). They even surged over the top of Mt. Ruapheu (2900m) 40 km away and knocked over huge trees hundreds of miles away.. so yeah, they can get pretty destructive. That said, you are more likely to win lotto than actually ever witness anything like this.

Have you seen the ash dispersion maps of past eruptions? That will give you some idea.
a quick google results in this:…

By bruce stout (not verified) on 03 May 2010 #permalink

Why has the YMR (Madison River)siesmogram gone off-line for over a week now? Sites in Yellowstone are showing activity when they are usually flat lined. The most important site monitoring current swarm data is down. I find it disturbing. Any idea what is up? I live in Livingston, MT and within the "blast" zone.
I will contact again through faceboof...

By Susan Muehlhausen (not verified) on 27 May 2010 #permalink

I've been monitoring all earthquakes, worldwide for well over three years (more, if you count how long I've been earthquake researching). Since 2004, earthquakes have been on the increase for sure; mostly in heavily populated areas. I have some worried friends who claim that the transit of Venus supposedly somehow had something to do with them, which happened June 6th or so, 2004. I am a little suspicious about these kinds of conjectures; although that same year marked the biggest world wide disaster in modern times with the Indonesian tsunami.

Getting back to earthquakes increasing in scientific terms, perhaps the world's undersea ridges are going into hyper drive? Since earlier this year, Iceland has been a place that has seen a significant uptick in activity, right at the area of the ridge. Even though the recent volcano has subsided, Katla and Hekla, etc., including the entire chain of volcanoes there, have shown major increases in earthquakes that are also getting more and more shallow. Many scietists are convinced that very soon, one or two of those volcanoes are bound to erupt. Perhaps, this will occur within the next two years or so?

Volacanic eruptions are most certainly increasing and have been doing so since 1960, or so. For some reason, maybe due to a cycle, our planet is becoming more and more active, like a lava lamp that rises and falls, as time goes by. If so, it is very good to meet you all over the internet, and I hope we can continue to monitor these events, just in case we need to sound the alarm.

Blessings to all!

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