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Snake River Plain Across Southern Idaho

The Snake River Plain is a geologic feature located primarily within the state of Idaho in the United States of America. It stretches about westward from northwest of the state of Wyomingmarker to the Idaho-Oregonmarker border. The plain is a wide flat bow-shaped depression, and covers about a quarter of Idaho. Three major buttes dot the plain east of Arcomarker, the largest being Big Southern Buttemarker.

Many of Idaho's major cities are in the Snake River Plain as is much of its agricultural land.Also located within Snake River Plain is the Idaho National Laboratorymarker.


The Snake River Plain can be divided into three sections: western, central, and eastern. The western Snake River Plain is a large tectonic graben or rift valley filled with several km of lacustrine (lake) sediments; the sediments are underlain by rhyolite and basalt, and overlain by basalt. The western plain began to form around 11-12 Ma with the eruption of rhyolite lavas and ignimbrites. The western plain is not parallel to North American Plate motion, and lies at a high angle to the central and eastern Snake River Plains. Its morphology is similar to other volcanic plateaus such as the Chilcotin Group in south-central British Columbiamarker, Canadamarker.
Location of Yellowstone Hotspot in Millions of Years Ago
The eastern Snake River plain traces the path of the North American plate over the Yellowstone hotspot, now centered in Yellowstone National Parkmarker. The eastern plain is a topographic depression that cuts across Basin and Range Mountain structures, more or less parallel to North American plate motion. It is underlain almost entirely by basalt erupted from large shield volcanoes. Beneath the basalts are rhyolite lavas and ignimbrites that erupted as the lithosphere passed over the hotspot. The central Snake River plain is similar to the eastern plain, but differs by having thick sections of interbedded lacustrine (lake) and fluvial (stream) sediments, including the Hagerman fossil bedsmarker.

Island Parkmarker and Yellowstone Calderasmarker formed as the result of enormous rhyolite ignimbrite eruptions, with single eruptions producing up to 2500 cubic km of ash. Island Park Caldera, measuring by , may be the largest symmetrical caldera in the world . The caldera formed when a dome of magma built up and then drained away. The center of the dome collapsed, leaving a caldera. The rim is visible in this image as a distinct ring of green in the satellite image. Younger volcanoes that erupted after passing over the hotspot covered the plain with young basalt lava flows in places, including Craters of the Moon National Monumentmarker.

Effects on Climate

Moisture Channel
Precip Map
200 px
The Snake River Plain has a significant effect on the climate of Yellowstone National Parkmarker and the adjacent areas to the south and west of Yellowstone. As the Yellowstone hotspot burned its way across southern Idaho, it left a wide channel through the Rocky Mountains. This channel is in line with the gap between the Cascade Range and the Sierra Nevada. The result is a moisture channel extending from the Pacific Ocean to Yellowstone. Moisture from the Pacific Ocean streams onshore in the form of clouds and humid air. It passes through the gap between the Sierras and Cascades and on into the Snake River Plain where it is channeled through most of the Rocky Mountains with no high plateaus nor mountain ranges to impede its progress. It finally encounters upslope conditions at the head of the Snake River Valley at Ashton, Idahomarker and at Island Park, Idahomarker, at the Teton Rangemarker east of Driggs, Idahomarker, and at the Yellowstone Plateaumarker of Yellowstone National Park where the channeled moisture precipitates out as rain and snow. The result is a localized climate on the eastern side of the Rockies that is akin to a climate on the west slope of the Cascades or the northern Sierras. The head of the Snake River Valley, the Tetonsmarker, and the Yellowstone Plateaumarker receive much more precipitation than other areas of the region and the area is known for being wet, green, having many streams, and having abundant snow in winter.

Geothermal Capacity

The SRP has a high level of agricultural development and houses the majority of Idaho’s population; however, it also contains one of the United States' greatest potential sources for renewable energy in the form of geothermal heat. The Snake River Plain (SRP) was formed from successive volcanic eruptions of the Yellowstone hotspot as it moved beneath the North American Plate from what is now Eastern Oregon to its current location in NW Wyoming. The basaltic plain that resulted still retains a large amount of surface-level heat flow; it allows Idaho to be one of the 5 states in the USA that currently have functional geothermal electricity generation. While geothermal energy is accessible with current techniques at shallow depths due to the presence of the Snake River Aquifer and a highly fractured basement, the much vaster energy potential at depth is currently locked away within dry rock classified as Enhanced Geothermal Sources (EGS).

See also

External links and references

  1. Snake River Plain, Idaho
  2. Bryson, R. A. and Hare, F.K. 1974 Climates of North America, Survey of Climatology, Vol. 11 Elsevier, New York p 422
  3. Mock, C. J., 1996 Climatic controls and spatial variations of precipitation in the western United States, Journal of Climate, 9:1111-1125

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