A moonscape on Earth
Team of UI geological scientists study Yellowstone’s geothermal features and uncover the park’s underground secrets

October 10, 2017

In 2016 about 4.25 million people visited Yellowstone National Park for its wilderness and recreational features — the busiest year yet.

The nationally owned land sits atop a volcanic hotspot and spans across parts of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. Wildlife, geysers, lakes, mountains, hundreds of plant species and tourists throughout the year call the park home.

Only some of the 3,500 square miles of western wilderness is fit with tourist amenities, while most is untouched and pristine.

This is what Megan Aunan said draws her in most about the park.

The University of Idaho geology graduate student said Yellowstone is a researcher’s paradise.

“Yellowstone really speaks for itself,” Aunan said. “It has these huge geothermal springs and features that you just don’t see in other places.”

Aunan visited Yellowstone on a research expedition with Kerry Fairley, a UI professor of geological sciences, and other researchers during summer 2016, and has utilized the information gathered as part of her studies.

Fairley’s main research focus involves geothermal systems surrounding volcanoes, making Yellowstone a prime area for fieldwork.

Fairley, who researched geothermal systems in Nevada, Oregon, Japan and New Zealand, said the methods used always vary in relation to the type of volcanic system present.

The research process in Yellowstone began with a professor at Washington State University nearly six years ago, Fairley said. Four years ago, they began the grant process and submitted a proposal to the National Science Foundation to conduct summer research in Yellowstone.

“That was sort of the start of all this research,” Fairley said.

Researchers from all over the world visit Yellowstone for its many scientific features. Public Affairs official, Jonathan Shafer said the national park service allows Yellowstone to accommodate up to 200 park research permits per year. That number is almost always met.

“Many teams come for one specific type of research,” Shafer said. “From archaeology to zoology — you name it — it’s being researched here.”

This is where Fairley, Aunan and their research team members from WSU and Lewis-Clark State College come into play.

The permit process is a long one, Fairley said. The team meticulously crafted their proposal for the five-day trip, he said, because of the competitive nature of the process. The team works under permit YELL-2014-SCI-6034 designated by the US National Park Service.

The supervolcano resting beneath the park’s surface provides multitudes of hydrothermal reservoirs — underground pockets of rock cradling heat and steam —  to analyze at Yellowstone.

Fairley says his team is interested in the nature of the reservoirs for many reasons — one being the prediction of volcanic eruptions.

“We question if the fluids are mostly steam, liquid water and what temperature lies beneath,” Fairley said. “Everybody wants to know if volcanoes are going to erupt, and we can find that primary driver from the heat emitted from the deep subsurface.”

Aunan said much of their research is derived from hot spring water samples. This allows researchers to take water temperatures, study the spring’s chemical makeup and infer how the liquid moves through the ground.

“These parts of Yellowstone are not open to development or exploitation — they are pure and natural,” Aunan said.

The area is a unique set of geological systems, she said, because Yellowstone is home to the only continental hotspot.

For Fairley, these areas gave the team a rare glimpse into the inner workings of Yellowstone’s geology.

“An astronomer looks through telescopes to gather information about what is above,” Fairley said. “For me, I look deep into a hot spring to gather information about what is below.”

Though the hot springs may look beautiful and inviting, some hydrothermal features are incredibly dangerous, with hot temperatures and highly acidic compositions. Fairley said the ground is often too thin and can easily break if not properly inspected first.

“We don’t go on any ground that we don’t feel comfortable with. If there is any slight concern, we treat it as the biggest concern,” Aunan said. “In geology, you never back up without looking where you’re going.”

It is not only the possibly dangerous conditions that make a research trip like theirs an arduous expedition. Fairley said their research site had not been monitored in over 20 years.

“There’s good reason for that,” Fairley said. “It’s pretty remote, it’s not well-marked on maps and it’s a pretty hefty hike in.”

Preparation is key, Fairley said, because of the field site’s 18-mile hike from any park junction and 12-mile hike from the team’s campsite.

Aunan said strong physical and mental shape is key when taking on a project like this.

“Being organized and knowledgeable is super important,” Aunan said. “You can’t just forget a snack or tool and head back to the car like a tourist would.”

But, Fairley said there are rewarding aspects to the difficulties to the trip too.

“It was incredibly challenging but incredibly fulfilling,” Fairley said. “This place is just a moonscape — we didn’t see any footprints or a single gum wrapper.”

He said though there are few tourists who venture near the research site, wildlife is abundant in the area. Bears, wolf packs, coyotes and bison are often spotted.

“It really is an indicator of the wild character of this place,” Fairley said.

Those wild and untouched qualities of the national park are most often seen in its history. Fairley said Yellowstone was not entirely researched with volcanic systems in mind until the ‘70s.

People most often think of volcanoes as mountain shaped pieces of geography, Fairley said. A Yellowstone tourist will find no such thing anywhere in the park. Instead, the volcano is hidden away underneath Yellowstone’s surface, producing a caldera.

“A caldera is essentially a depression in the ground,” Fairley said. “Yellowstone sort of breathes. It swells and releases again and again.”

He said the caldera was formed approximately 40,000 years ago.

“It’s so large that you can stand there and look around and never know that you are essentially inside of a large crater,” Fairley said.

Though the caldera may not look like an average depiction of a volcano, he said the park hosts a plethora of underground magma chambers and movement.

The last super eruption at Yellowstone occurred about 640,000 years ago, beginning the formation of the caldera.

Fairley said the time frame is small compared to other geological happenings.

“As a geologist, I always think — if only it could erupt in my lifetime,” Fairley said. “As a human being I recognize it would be a disaster, but as a scientist I would run toward it instead of away.”

He said scientists are always running toward the environmental processes that scare people most.

Although it is very unlikely the caldera will erupt again in our lifetime, Fairley said the eruption would produce a catastrophic situation for the U.S. and quite possibly the world.

Enormous releases of sulfur dioxide would enter the air and ash would cover 33 percent of the country. He said global temperatures would drop and a large portion of harvested land could be covered by up to 10 meters of ash.

More locally, Fairley said the Palouse, like the rest of the world, would feel the change in climate. But, the implications for the Pacific Northwest would be fairly small in comparison to the lower western half of the US.

Fairley said, however, scientists currently research the subject for future reference, but the common person shouldn’t expect an explosion anytime soon.

“This is one of those events that are actually quite common in a geologic sense,” Fairley said. “So we often say any day now — anytime in the next 10,000 years.”

Although Fairley and Aunan have not yet ventured into making prediction about possible future eruptions, the work they continuously cultivate feeds into the predictions of other scientists.

“To be there for just the visual aspect is absolutely amazing,” Aunan said. “But the fact that the entire space is your office — your laboratory — is even more incredible to think about.”



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