Scientists discover Yellowstone’s hotspot could be MILLIONS of years older than thought

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Yellowstone is an active supervolcano located in Yellowstone National Park in the western United States. Many millions of years old, the volcano is known to have erupted at least three times in the past, with the last ‘supervolcano’ eruption taking place around 640,000 years ago.

However, the volcano’s heat source – known as the Yellowstone hotspot, is much older.

Scientists think the hotspot is around 17 million years old. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) describes this hotspot as a plume of hot material that connects the volcano far down into the depths of the Earth – perhaps near to the core.

Hot material rising through this plume powers Yellowstone, including the hot springs and geysers that have attracted tourists to the park for years.

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Now, scientists have observed geological phenomena suggesting the hotspot could actually be 50 million years old, or even older, the USGS has said.

This is because the hotspot moves over time, along with the nearby tectonic plates that slide along the surface of the Earth.

As the hotspot moves, it leaves a “trail of volcanism” that gets older and older, described as “essentially ancient Yellowstones”.

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The USGS says: “The start of the trail is the 17-million-year-old McDermitt volcanic system and similar-age volcanism in northern Nevada and southern Oregon.”

Here, the trail goes ‘cold’. However, scientists have noticed that some volcanic rocks – referred to as ‘Siletzia terrane’ – that are thought to have been created well off the coast of North America have a similar composition to rocks that are also present at the start of the hotspot trail.

As such, scientists have wondered whether the rocks were created by an earlier version of the Yellowstone hotspot.

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The USGS added: “Sure enough, there are volcanic rocks of this age present in the Oregon and Washington coast range that that are chemically related to the older Siletzia rocks and younger Yellowstone hotspot products.

“Siletzia and related rocks of the hotspot were originally welded onto the North American continent in coastal California and Oregon, but since that time tectonic forces have caused northward migration of these rocks by as much as 300 km to their current position in coastal Oregon and Washington.”

The organisation concluded: “About 20 years ago, this story might have been dismissed as fantasy. Through years of careful accumulation of data and evidence, however, the case has become quite strong—the Yellowstone hotspot is a long-lived feature that dates back to at least 50 million years ago, and perhaps even earlier.”

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