Reconstructing a Snake River Plain ‘super-eruption’ via compositional fingerprinting and high-precision U/Pb zircon geochronology

  • B. S. EllisEmail author
  • M. D. Schmitz
  • M. Hill
Original Paper


Despite the potential hazards posed by the largest explosive eruptions, so-called ‘super-eruptions’, their recurrence rate remains poorly constrained. The younger portion of the Yellowstone-Snake River Plain province is well known for large-scale explosive volcanism; however, the older history within the Snake River Plain remains poorly known and partially obscured by later basaltic volcanism. To address this, we characterised the mineral cargo of four widely spaced rhyolitic ignimbrites from the margins of the Snake River Plain that illustrate a strong similarity revealed in compositions of bulk geochemistry, major phases (e.g., pyroxene and ilmenite), and radiogenic isotopes. To test for the synchronous origin and eruption of these deposits, we used a tandem in-situ and isotope dilution method for U/Pb geochronology of zircon crystals. The youngest sampling of zircons from all four samples is equivalent in age, and defines a pooled weighted mean 238U/206Pb age of 11.030 ± 0.006 (MSWD = 1.44, n = 24). These results reveal an event with a conservatively estimated erupted volume ~ 1470 km3, of similar magnitude to the largest explosive events from Yellowstone. Widely dispersed ashfall deposits found across the western portions of North America with geochemical affinities to the Snake River Plain province suggest that other voluminous ignimbrites are awaiting discovery. The improved ability to correlate deposits of an individual eruption shown by this and other recent studies implies that ‘super’ eruptive events are more common than previously thought.


ID-TIMS U–Pb zircon dating Yellowstone Super-eruption 



This work was supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation (grant 200021_166281 to BE). Olivier Bachmann, Jorn Wotzlaw, Yannick Buret, John Wolff, and Dawid Szymanowski provided helpful discussions and input. Frank Ramos kindly provided the Hf isotopic data. We would like to thank Luca Caricchi and Calvin Miller for providing insightful journal reviews and Othmar Müntener for his editorial effort.

Supplementary material

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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute for Geochemistry and Petrology, ETH ZurichZurichSwitzerland
  2. 2.Department of GeosciencesBoise State UniversityBoiseUSA

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