Tag Archives: Yellowstone National Park

Scientists reveal the ‘plumbing’ found under Old Faithful geyser

A group of scientists have been examining the “heart” of Old Faithful — Yellowstone National Park’s most famous geyser. These researchers are focused on figuring out exactly what causes this rare geological formation to beat faithfully and forcefully, beginning long before the geyser was discovered in 1870.

Old Faithful geyser, Yellowstone National Park
Photo: Jon Sullivan, via Wikimedia Commons

University of Utah researchers have finally produced substantial images of the geological anatomy of the geyser, complete with its natural underground ductwork that causes it to flush regularly.

“Here’s the iconic geyser of Yellowstone,” declared Robert Smith, researcher and professor of geology and geophysics. “It’s known around the world, but the complete geologic plumbing of Yellowstone’s Upper Geyser Basin has not been mapped, nor have we studied how the timing of eruptions is related to precursor ground tremors before eruptions.”

Smith, who has spent 60 years working in America’s first national park, said in a news release that he and his associates may have cracked the mystery by mapping the underground pathways that eventually carry steam and heated water to the surface vent, which spews out every 44 to 125 minutes. The mapping effort relied on a dense network of portable seismographs and new methods of analyzing the data.

Results of the study are published in Geophysical Research Letters. The paper’s lead author is doctoral student Sin-Mei Wu. The news release was written by science writer Paul Gabrielsen of the University of Utah’s communications department.

Yellowstone National Park is underlain by two reservoirs of active magma, one about 3 miles down, the other about 25. They are the power behind the unusual formations and ongoing venting that form chemical lakes and springs as well as the explosive geysers.

The anatomy of Old Faithful geyser, as revealed in new studies
Image: Sin-Mei Wu

Smith along with fellow researchers Jamie Farrell and Fan-Chi Lin have spent years characterizing the magma reservoirs. They track the small rumblings of ground movement, as recorded on seismometers, and then plot out the underground structures.

“We try to use continuous ground shaking produced by humans, cars, wind, water and Yellowstone’s hydrothermal boilings and convert it into our signal,” Lin explained in the news release. “We can extract a useful signal from the ambient background ground vibration.”

About 30 permanent seismometers around the park monitor ground shaking and earthquakes at a cost of about $10,000 each. In 2015, the work expanded. Some 133 small seismometers, which cost about $2,000 each, were deployed for two weeks around Old Faithful and Geyser Hill. These cheaper seismometers were developed by the company FairfieldNodal for oil and gas exploration, but they became a key to understanding Old Faithful’s seismic activity.

Small portable seismometers were the key to tracing underground formations.
Photo: Paul Gabrielsen

The data show patterns of intense tremors lasting about 60 minutes followed by 30 minutes of quiet. The eruption of Old Faithful occurs not during the peak of shaking but just before everything goes quiet.

The cycle begins after an eruption when the geyser’s underground reservoir starts filling up with water. Pressure in the reservoir builds up from heated water and lots of aqueous bubbles, which rumble until an eruption occurs. The eruption cools the water very quickly causing an implosion that registers on the seismometers before everything stops and the cycle starts again.

Typically, seismic imaging uses a man-made source to shake the ground, such as setting off an explosion or banging a hammer on a metal plate in the ground. Lin and Wu developed a method of sifting useful signals from the natural hydrothermal rumblings, thanks to the number and location of small seismometers.

“It’s amazing that you can use the hydrothermal source to image the structure here,” Wu said.

The data showed that tremors from Old Faithful were not reaching the western boardwalk, while seismic waves from another hydrothermal feature also slowed and scattered in the same general area. That pointed to some kind of underground feature that became the focus of intense study using a dense network of the small seismometers. The researchers believe they pinpointed the location of Old Faithful’s long-sought reservoir.

Wu estimates that the reservoir, a network of fractured rock, is about 650 feet across and can hold more than 79 million gallons of water, as compared to Old Faithful’s eruption, which releases about 8,000 gallons at a time.

“Although it’s a rough estimation, we were surprised that it was so large,” Wu said.

The research team is returning to the park this winter for more studies into the subsurface structure and to develop higher resolution images at Old Faithful. Smith hopes to use similar methods to reveal hidden features in other areas, including the Norris Geyser Basin — the hottest geothermal area in the park.

Meanwhile, National Park Service officials would like to know if any of the geothermal features and underlying magma might pose a future risk to people and buildings in the park, especially around the large visitor center at Old Faithful. The underground mapping could help with those questions.

Lin credits Smith’s long-term relationship with the park as opening the door to the research being conducted by the University of Utah. “You need new techniques,” he said, “but also those long-term relationships.”

Old Faithful was named on Sept. 18, 1870, by members of the Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition. As later described in Nathanial P. Langford’s account of the expedition:

“It spouted at regular intervals nine times during out stay, the columns of boiling water being thrown from 90 to 125 feet at each discharge, which lasted from 15 to 20 minutes. We gave it the name ‘Old Faithful.’”

In those days, nobody could explain why Old Faithful acted the way it did, but some of the early visitors put the geyser to a practical use. In his 1883 guide for tourists, Henry J. Winser wrote:

“Old Faithful is sometimes degraded by being made a laundry. Garments placed in the crater during quiescence are ejected thoroughly washed when the eruption takes place. Gen. Sheridan’s men, in 1882, found that linen and cotton fabrics were uninjured by the action of the water, but woolen clothes were torn to shreds.”

It would be another 135 years before the plumbing of this natural “laundry” would be explained with the use of advanced technology.

Amusing Monday: Time-lapse reveals national-park wonders unseen

Time-lapse photography can add a new dimension to the way we see things. When done well, these speeded-up videos not only help us see things in a new way but also call us to remember feelings about special places and natural wonders.

On their first visit to Olympic National Park, brothers Will and Jim Pattiz captured images from various park locations for what would become a captivating video for the series “More Than Just Parks.” They traveled to some prime locations that many of us have visited, but their careful use of time-lapse equipment create a new sense of inspiration for familiar places.

So find a quiet moment, sit back and enjoy their video full-screen on your computer if not your TV.

If you’d like to learn more about the video project and what the brothers learned about Olympic National Park, read the interview on the Exotic Hikes website, or check out the background on “More Than Just Parks.”

One of my all-time favorite time-lapse videos was shot in Yellowstone National Park, where photographer Christopher Cauble captured the rhythms of nature in a place where geysers, streams, clouds and even the animals move with a natural fluidity. I especially like the sections where the video slows down to remind us about the normal pace of events — something not seen in most time-lapse videos.

The last video on this page shows Mount Rainier in a time-lapse video by West Coast Time Lapse, a company of Nate Wetterauer and Chase Jensen. Like the Olympic National Park video, this one about Mount Rainier was posted within the past year.

If you would like to see more time-lapse video of national parks, take a look at “15 time-lapse videos that capture national parks at their best” by The Wilderness Society. It contains parks from here in Washington (a different Olympic National Park video) to Maine, from Alaska to Texas.

Fishers in the Olympics help us think big

The effort to reintroduce fishers into Olympic National Park continues to be an exciting good-news story, but the implications may be even greater than they seem at first glance.

We must wait to see whether the males and females among the 40 or more fishers will find each other. But biologists say there’s a good chance they will, and researchers may discover some dens with kits either this spring or maybe next year.

I had the privilege of seeing five fishers released yesterday near Staircase Ranger Station in Olympic National Park. These were the first animals to be released on the east side of the mountains. For a description of their rapid escape into the woods, see my story and watch the video in today’s Kitsap Sun.

While on the outing, I talked to Jasmine Minbashian of Conservation Northwest about the potential for unexpected results from this experiment. As an example, she wondered about the potential of a trophic cascade, such as seen in Yellowstone Park after the introduction of wolves. In a chain of events, the wolves have done a great favor for fish in the national park.

Wolves not only eat elk at times, but their presence frightens away these animals that love to eat the shoots of aspen trees. Without the elk browsing continuously, the aspens grow into dense vegetation that can provide shade, cover and insects — all to the benefits of fish and other creatures.

Chris Conway of the New York Times does a nice job explaining this in a brief story from Aug. 5, 2007. For a little longer version, see Science Daily, which points out:

Prior to the re-introduction of wolves, scientists found there were many small sprouting shoots of these important tree species, and numbers of large trees 70 years old or more — but practically nothing in between. High populations of grazing ungulates, primarily elk, had grazed on the small tree shoots at leisure and with little fear of attack.

But the ecological damage, researchers say, went far beyond just trees. The loss of trees and shrubs opened the door to significant stream erosion. Beaver dams declined. Food webs broke down, and the chain of effects rippled through birds, insects, fish and other plant and animal species.

For more information about trophic cascades, go to the Web site of Oregon State University, where this issue is being studied in depth.

As for Olympic National Park, the extermination of wolves on the peninsula may have had a cascading effect on species that depend on cottonwood and bigleaf maples. The Fall 2008 issue of Island Geoscience (PDF 732 kb) tells it this way:

In 1890, members of the Press Expedition found the banks of the upper Quinault River “so dense with underbrush as to be almost impenetrable,” they wrote at the time. Logs jammed the rivers, dense tree canopies shaded and cooled the streams, and trout and salmon thrived, along with hundreds of species of plants and animals.

“Today, you go through the same area and instead of dense vegetation that you have to fight through, it’s a park-like stand of predominantly big trees,” said Bill Ripple, a co-author of the study and forestry professor at Oregon State University. “It’s just a different world.”

“Our study shows that there has been almost no recruitment of new cottonwood and bigleaf maple trees since the wolves disappeared, and also likely impacts on streamside shrubs, which are very important for river stability,” said Robert Beschta, lead author of the study and professor emeritus of forest hydrology at OSU. “Decreases in woody plant communities allow river banks to rapidly erode and river channels to widen.”

Efforts to reintroduce wolves to the Olympic Peninsula are on hold for the time being. But we have a lot to think about. What we can learn from the fisher may be much more than the idea that we should have a few more of the furry animals running around.