Nav: Home

Yellowstone study explores park's geothermal system

June 05, 2018

Boulder, Colo., USA: The hot springs at Yellowstone National Park derive their heat from the supervolcano's active magma body that lies buried beneath the surface. But how much heat is actually leaving the surface at Yellowstone, and can this heat be used to estimate how much magma is entering the crust below the supervolcano?

These are difficult questions to answer because the visible water leaving a hot spring usually represents only part of the heat lost, because shallow groundwater flow can also carry heat away, as can losses to the surroundings by conduction.

In an effort to obtain bounds on the total amount of advective heat (i.e., heat energy carried by flowing water) moving through a single spring, investigators Peter Larson from Washington State University and Jerry Fairley from the University of Idaho and their students used deuterium, a stable isotope of hydrogen, to "spike" several hot springs in the Morning Mist Springs area of Lower Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park. The investigators sampled the spring water until the amount of deuterium returned to background levels, and used the time rate of change to calculate the rate of water flow and heat through the springs. The new method accounts for both the visible (surface) and the "unseen" (subsurface) flows of water and heat, and is described in a new article published by Nicholas McMillan and colleagues in Geosphere.

The new method for estimating heat flow is safe for the ecological system, and has no visual impact to distract from the experience of park visitors. However, the information gained is an important step toward understanding the rate at which heat is transported to the surface from molten rock, located five to eight kilometers underground. Investigators hope that by better constraining the energy that is responsible for the Park's geothermal system they will someday understand the complex processes that drive the enormous Yellowstone volcano and its iconic thermal features. This preliminary analysis suggests that the rate of new basalt magma entering the Yellowstone supervolcano is at least half that of Kalauea, which is now erupting on Hawaii.

Direct measurement of advective heat flux from several Yellowstone hot springs, USA
Authors: Nicholas McMillan, Peter Larson, Jerry Fairley, Joseph Mulvaney-Norris, and Cary Lindsey. Contact author: Peter B. Larson, Washington State University, Paper URL:

GEOSPHERE articles are available at Representatives of the media may obtain complimentary copies of GEOSPHERE articles by contacting Kea Giles at the address above. Please discuss articles of interest with the authors before publishing stories on their work, and please make reference to GEOSPHERE in articles published. Non-media requests for articles may be directed to GSA Sales and Service,

Geological Society of America

Related Yellowstone Articles:

Bison in northern Yellowstone proving to be too much of a good thing
Increasing numbers of bison in Yellowstone National Park in recent years have become a barrier to ecosystem recovery in the iconic Lamar Valley in the northern part of the park.
What happens under the Yellowstone Volcano
A recent study by Bernhard Steinberger of the German GeoForschungsZentrum and colleagues in the USA helps to better understand the processes in the Earth's interior beneath the Yellowstone supervolcano.
Fearing cougars more than wolves, Yellowstone elk manage threats from both predators
Wolves are charismatic, conspicuous, and easy to single out as the top predator affecting populations of elk, deer, and other prey animals.
What drives Yellowstone's massive elk migrations?
Yellowstone's migratory elk rely primarily on environmental cues, including a retreating snowline and the greening grasses of spring, to decide when to make the treks between their winter ranges and summer ranges, shows a new study led by University of California, Berkeley, researchers.
Aftershocks of 1959 earthquake rocked Yellowstone in 2017-18
A swarm of more than 3,000 small earthquakes in the Maple Creek area (in Yellowstone National Park but outside of the Yellowstone volcano caldera) between June 2017 and March 2018 are, at least in part, aftershocks of the 1959 quake.
Resilience of Yellowstone's forests tested by unprecedented fire
The University of Wisconsin-Madison's Monica Turner and her team describe what happens when Yellowstone -- adapted to recurring fires every 100 to 300 years -- instead burns twice in fewer than 30 years.
Yellowstone elk don't budge for wolves say scientists
Elk roam the winter range that straddles the northern boundary of Yellowstone National Park with little regard for wolves, according to a new study illustrating how elk can tolerate living in close proximity to the large predator.
Researchers find broad impacts from lake trout invasion in Yellowstone
The scientists analyzed data spanning more than four decades and concluded that the impact of lake trout in Yellowstone Lake -- in particular, the decline of native cutthroat trout -- has cascaded across the lake, its tributaries and the surrounding ecosystem.
Yellowstone streams recovering thanks to wolf reintroduction
In the first study of its kind, research by Oregon State University scientists shows that the return of large terrestrial carnivores can lead to improved stream structure and function.
Hidden costs of disease to greater Yellowstone elk
For decades researchers have known that a bacterial disease in elk, bison and cattle in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem causes periodic abortions in these animals and chronic illness in humans drinking infected cow's milk.
More Yellowstone News and Yellowstone Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Climate Mindset
In the past few months, human beings have come together to fight a global threat. This hour, TED speakers explore how our response can be the catalyst to fight another global crisis: climate change. Guests include political strategist Tom Rivett-Carnac, diplomat Christiana Figueres, climate justice activist Xiye Bastida, and writer, illustrator, and artist Oliver Jeffers.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#562 Superbug to Bedside
By now we're all good and scared about antibiotic resistance, one of the many things coming to get us all. But there's good news, sort of. News antibiotics are coming out! How do they get tested? What does that kind of a trial look like and how does it happen? Host Bethany Brookeshire talks with Matt McCarthy, author of "Superbugs: The Race to Stop an Epidemic", about the ins and outs of testing a new antibiotic in the hospital.
Now Playing: Radiolab

Speedy Beet
There are few musical moments more well-worn than the first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. But in this short, we find out that Beethoven might have made a last-ditch effort to keep his music from ever feeling familiar, to keep pushing his listeners to a kind of psychological limit. Big thanks to our Brooklyn Philharmonic musicians: Deborah Buck and Suzy Perelman on violin, Arash Amini on cello, and Ah Ling Neu on viola. And check out The First Four Notes, Matthew Guerrieri's book on Beethoven's Fifth. Support Radiolab today at