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The Yellowstone National Park is a protected area located primarily in the U.S. state of Wyoming, but also extending into Montana and Idaho as well, and was the first area in the U.S. that was so honored as a national park. Its name derives from the Yellowstone River that runs through the park, which itself was named after the yellow sandstones on its banks in Montana. Yellowstone is known for its wildlife, environment, and landmarks, in particular the Old Faithful geyser, which goes off every ninety minutes or so. Yellowstone also contains a number of archaeological sites, with settlement of the region dating back to the Clovis culture 11,000 years ago. More infamously, Yellowstone is the site of the Yellowstone Caldera, a supervolcano that has gone off three times in history and which some claim may destroy America at any moment now. Despite its rich geological history, many Young-Earth creationists have tried to use Yellowstone as "evidence" of the Global Flood. Yellowstone is also the subject of an interesting constitutional thought experiment that alleges that it may be possible to get away with any crime, including murder, there.
Will the volcano one day destroy us all?
Most likely, no, despite what all the fearmongerers will tell you. In fact, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) ranks Yellowstone as only the twenty-first most dangerous volcano in the United States. So what's with all the fearmongering?
Yellowstone is one of the largest active calderas in the world, though there are others of a similar size, most notably the Toba volcano in Indonesia, which went off 75,000 years ago and is believed to have caused a population bottleneck of the human population. Yellowstone's magma chamber is about 3,200km² across and 8km to 16km deep, but only about 10-30% of the rock is actually molten. If the magma chamber started filling again, there would be a lot of seismic activity, ground deformation and changes in gas emissions; Yellowstone is one of the most monitored volcanoes in the world, and since it would take decades for the magma chamber to fill up enough to become a threat, we'd know of any dangers years in advance.
Yellowstone has erupted three times in geologically-recent times: 2.1 Ma (which was the largest of the three, being 6,000 times larger than the 1980 eruption of Mt. Saint Helens), 1.2 Ma (700 times larger than Mt. Saint Helens) and most recently 640,000 years ago, being the source of the current caldera (2,500 times larger than Mt. Saint Helens). Some make the claim that this means we're overdue for an eruption, but since there were 900,000 years between the first two eruptions, this kind of extrapolation is fallacious.
Yellowstone sits on a hotspot, which is an area that has volcanism outside of a plate boundary. As the North American Plate moves over the asthenosphere, the hotspot remains in place, so the eruptions from the hotspot can track the plate motion — and there are old calderas that were left by the hotspot that can be found as far away as Nevada. Due to plate motion, the caldera is moving away from the hotspot, and as a result if Yellowstone does erupt again during our lifetime, it would almost certainly be a small-scale lava flow rather than a cataclysmic event.
Young-Earth creationist perspective
Yellowstone's geological history is fairly well-understood, especially since the major geological events that shaped it have happened relatively recently. Nevertheless, there are a few young-Earth creationists who believe that the park is evidence that the Earth is only 6,000 or so years old. For example, Answers in Genesis alleges that Yellowstone shows evidence of how large volcanoes changed the Earth's surface after the Global Flood. Never mind that the most recent eruption happened 645,000 years ago, over one hundred times longer than they think the Earth was around, but they try to get around this by saying that since the ground is still hot, the volcano must have erupted 4,500 years ago — which is still ridiculous, considering that there are archaeological sites in Yellowstone that are much older than that and aren't covered in ash. This also ignores the aforementioned fact that not enough of the caldera is molten for there to be a large-scale eruption, and also completely overlooks all the past calderas that were created by the hotspot.
One particular challenge for creationists is the petrified forests at Specimen Ridge in Yellowstone, of which many of them have spent decades trying to come up with a coherent explanation. There are 27 successive layers of petrified forests which were buried under volcanic ash (in volcanic events that are unrelated to the current hotspot) 50 million years ago, and they show a variety of species of trees. Their answer is, unsurprisingly, Flooddidit. Some genius arguments:
- "But the trees don't have clear roots!" — The vast majority of petrified trees don't have preserved root systems, as trees tend to be stripped from their roots as they are displaced by the event that leads to petrification. In fact, the first petrified tree with an intact root system was only found in 2021.
- "But there are no animal fossils!" — The very reason why they petrify is because there are no living organisms with the trees to cause them to decay, so obviously, no animal fossils would be found in petrified forests.
- "But the trees look like they've moved, which obviously means there was a flood!" — Displacement is an important part of how petrified trees form, as they need to be under layers of mud or volcanic ash to petrify. Guess what lava flows can do?
Can you get away with murder in Yellowstone?
Brian Kalt, a law professor from Michigan State University, came up with a famous constitutional thought experiment in a 2005 Georgetown Law Journal article titled "The Perfect Crime". Under the Sixth Amendment, everyone has the right to a trial with a jury that comprises people from both the state and federal district in which the crime was committed. A problem arises when the entirety of Yellowstone is placed within the federal district of Wyoming, even the parts in Montana and Idaho. This isn't a big deal for the parts in Montana, as people live there and can thus be called to the jury (although the population is so small that assembling a jury would still be difficult). But nobody lives in the part of Yellowstone that is in Idaho, and thus if a crime is committed there, theoretically there can be no jury and thus, no trial, creating a 50-square mile "Zone of Death" in the Idaho part of Yellowstone where, theoretically, one can get away with any crime. This loophole has yet to be seriously tested in a court of law, so we wouldn't recommend trying it out, but nevertheless Kalt has been trying to get the government to close the loophole by making the Idaho part of Yellowstone part of the federal district of Idaho.
- Grand Canyon — another national park that creationists have been trying to shoehorn into their flood bullshit
- Yellowstone, National Park Service
- Yellowstone National Park, National Park Foundation
- Why is Yellowstone called Yellowstone?, USGS
- Old Faithful, National Park Services
- Archaeology, National Park Service
- Will Yellowstone Erupt Soon and Kill Us All?, Dara Hunter, Scientific American 13 November 2019
- Yellowstone Supervolcano Is Only The 21st Most Dangerous In America, Trevor Nace, Forbes 29 October 2018
- These Ancient Humans Survived a Supervolcano, Michael Greshko, National Geographic 12 March 2018
- Questions About Yellowstone Research, USGS
- Don’t Call It a Supervolcano, Mary Caperton Morton, Eos 6 August 2021
- Yellowstone Volcano, Yellowstone National Park
- Track of Yellowstone hotspot, USGS
- How Oregon landed a lithium bounty, Bradley W. Parks, OPB 16 February 2022
- What type of eruption will Yellowstone have if it erupts again?, USGS
- Yellowstone National Park, Answers in Genesis
- The Story of the Gallatin Petrified Forest, USDA
- Petrified Forests in Yellowstone, Answers in Genesis 17 July 2008
- 'Unique' petrified tree up to 20m years old found intact in Lesbos, Helena Smith, The Guardian 25 February 2021
- What is Petrified Wood? How Does it Form?, Geology.com
- How Long Does it Take to Make Petrified Wood?, Michelle Bryner, Live Science 30 November 2012
- The Perfect Crime, Brain C. Kalt, Georgetown Law Journal, Vol. 93, No. 2, 2005 25 March 2005
- About The District, US Department of Justice
- Yellowstone has a 50 square mile "Zone of Death" where you can get away with murder, Dylan Matthews, Vox 29 October 2016
- Tabloid Constitutionalism: How a Bill Doesn't Become a Law, Brian C. Kalt, Michigan State University College of Law 1 January 2008