Geophysicists Map Yellowstone’s Plumbing – ExtremeTech


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Yellowstone National Park’s famous Old Faithful geyser. (Photo: Emily Campbell/Unsplash)
The waters at Yellowstone National Park annually attract more than three million sightseers seeking mineral soaks and the perfect photo op. But the “plumbing” behind the park’s hot springs, rivers, pools, and steam vents has long been shrouded in mystery, with little knowledge as to how (if at all) Yellowstone’s geothermal features are interconnected. For the first time, scientists have mapped out the underground networks responsible for feeding and moving the waters Yellowstone is known for. 

Geophysicists from the US Geological Survey, Virginia Tech, and Denmark’s Aarhus University worked together to fly a 80-foot-wide wire loop over Yellowstone using a helicopter. The loop, called a SkyTEM, sent down electromagnetic pulses every 90 feet. The SkyTEM then collected and processed transient electromagnetic, magnetic, and radiometric data from the park’s “deep geology,” reaching as far as 2,300 feet (for electromagnetic data) and 8,200 feet (for magnetic data) beneath the ground’s surface. 

The result was a series of images depicting Yellowstone’s subsurface hydrothermal waterways, effectively mapping the park’s never-before-seen plumbing. The scientists could use these images to determine how deep certain waterways were and which way they tipped, among other logistics essential to understanding Yellowstone’s natural behind-the-scenes operations. The images also revealed that even geothermal features far apart from one another were interconnected, with the Upper Geyser basin and Yellowstone’s famed Old Faithful geyser sharing a geothermal source with Firehole Meadows despite being 6 miles apart.

(Photo: Angry Monkey/Unsplash)

This unexpected interconnectedness seems to carry implications about Yellowstone’s biological ecosystems—a key insight, given the park’s extreme geochemistry. Biologists may be able to use this updated information to inform future research into microorganisms’ survival in Yellowstone’s scalding waters. 

“We plan to work with microbiologists looking to link areas of groundwater and gas mixing to regions of extreme microbial diversity, geologists using our models to map lava flows and estimate eruptive volumes, and hydrologists interested in incorporating flow paths and regions of hot and cold fluids to determine how the underground water flows,” lead author Carol Finn, a geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey, wrote to Gizmodo regarding the team’s research. Finn added that they hope to combine their models with “deeper-sensing” electromagnetic data in the future, giving scientists the opportunity to better understand Yellowstone’s complete system, including the magma simmering under the surface. 

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