Unaltered silicic ash fall tuffs are abundant in Neogene sedimentary basins of the western U.S. and constitute an important record of explosive silicic volcanism in this region. In particular, ash fall tuffs from silicic volcanic centers along the Yellowstone hotspot track are common in these basins and provide a detailed record of explosive volcanism along the hotspot track. The available hotspot ash fall tuff record commences at ca. 16 Ma, shortly after the initiation of hotspot silicic volcanism at ca. 16.5 Ma, and continues through the most recent explosive eruptions in the late Pleistocene. Post–16 Ma hotspot silicic volcanism has been dominated by eruption of metaluminous ash flow tuffs and rhyolites, and ash fall tuffs produced by these eruptions dominate the Yellowstone hotspot ash fall tuff record. Evaluation of a well-dated composite sequence of 142 of these tuffs reveals systematic variation in magma composition, magma temperature, eruption frequency, and, possibly, volumetric discharge as the hotspot migrated eastward from the western edge of the North America craton to its current location in the Yellowstone Plateau.
On the basis of these variations, three primary stages of metaluminous rhyolite magmatism (M stages) are recognized: M1 (16.0–15.2 Ma), M2 (15.2–7.5 Ma), and M3 (7.5–0 Ma). Each of these stages is marked by distinctive magma compositions, eruption frequencies, and magma temperature ranges and trends, with an overall decline in average eruption frequency and magma temperature from stage to stage. The partitioning of explosive hotspot volcanism into stages likely reflects variation in the style and intensity of the interaction between the mantle anomaly powering the hotspot magmatic systems and a spatially and temporally heterogeneous lithosphere along the hotspot track. Although the ash fall tuff record does not provide definitive constraints on the nature of these variable interactions, correlations between changes in eruption frequency, ash fall tuff discharge, and magma temperature point to variable input of mantle basalt into hotspot crustal magmatic systems as a first order control on intensity of explosive volcanism. As future studies reveal more about the processes controlling the variations in hotspot silicic volcanism, a fuller understanding of both the nature of silicic magmatism and the nature of the Yellowstone hotspot should emerge.