Yellowstone Volcano Observatory

U.S. Geological Survey
Professional Paper 1456

The Geology and Remarkable Thermal Activity of Norris Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

By Donald E. White, Roderick A. Hutchinson, and Terry E.C. Keith


image of cover of book showing drawing of geyser

Norris Geyser Basin, normally shortened to Norris Basin, is adjacent to the north rim of the Yellowstone caldera at the common intersection of the caldera rim and the Norris-Mammoth Corridor, a zone of faults, volcanic vents, and thermal activity that strikes north from the caldera rim to Mammoth Hot Springs. An east-west fault zone terminates the Gallatin Range at its southern end and extends from Hebgen Lake, west of the park, to Norris Basin.

No local evidence exists at the surface in Norris Basin for the two oldest Yellowstone volcanic caldera cycles (~2.0 and 1.3 m.y.B.P.). The third and youngest cycle formed the Yellowstone caldera, which erupted the 600,000-year-old Lava Creek Tuff. No evidence is preserved of hydrothermal activity near Norris Basin during the first 300,000.years after the caldera collapse. Glaciation probably removed most of the early evidence, but erratics of hot-spring sinter that had been converted diagenetically to extremely hard, resistant chalcedonic sinter are present as cobbles in and on some moraines and till from the last two glacial stages, here correlated with the early and late stages of the Pinedale glaciation <150,000 years B.P.).

Indirect evidence for the oldest hydrothermal system at Norris Basin indicates an age probably older than both stages of Pinedale glaciation. Stream deposits consisting mainly of rounded quartz phenocrysts of the Lava Creek Tuff were subaerial, perhaps in part windblown and redeposited by streams. A few small rounded pebbles are interpreted as chalcedonic sinter of a still older cycle. None of these are precisely dated but are unlikely to be more than 150,000 to 200,000 years old.

...Most studies of active hydrothermal areas have noted chemical differences in fluids and alteration products but have given little attention to differences and models to explain evolution in types. This report, in contrast, emphasizes the kinds of changes in vents and their changing chemical types of waters and then provides models for explaining these differences.

Norris Basin is probably not an independent volcanic-hydrothermal system. The basin and nearby acid-leached areas (from oxidation of H2S-enriched vapor) are best considered as parts of the same system, extending from Norris Basin to Roaring Mountain and possibly to Mammoth. If so, are they parts of a single large system centered within the Yellowstone caldera, or are Norris Basin and the nearby altered areas both parts of one or more young independent corridor systems confined, at least in the shallow crust, to the Norris-Mammoth Corridor? Tentatively, we favor the latter relation, probably having evolved in the past ~300,000 years.

A model for large, long-lived, volcanic-hydrothermal activity is also suggested, involving all of the crust and upper mantle and using much recent geophysical data bearing on crust-mantle interrelations. Our model for large systems is much superior to previous suggestions for explaining continuing hydrothermal activity over hundreds of thousands of years, but is less attractive for the smaller nonhomogenized volcanic system actually favored here for the Norris-Mammoth Corridor.

Download text of this report as a 94-page PDF file (pp1456_text.pdf; 12.2 MB).

Download plate 1 of this report as a ~36" x ~41" PDF file (pp1456_plate1.pdf; 6.3 MB).

The digital database for Plate 1 of this report is also available as USGS Data Series 324 by Flynn and others (2008) at

For questions about the content of this report, contact Terry Keith or Jake Lowenstern

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