Yellowstone Mudpots Produce More Carbon Dioxide Than Expected

December 11, 1997

San Francisco, Calif. -- While the caldron-like bubbling of active mudpots may be the most eyecatching phenomenon in the Mud Volcano portion of Yellowstone National Park, Penn State researchers have discovered that nascent and dying mudpots actually produce equivalent amounts of carbon dioxide.

"We know that geothermal systems put a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere," says Cindy Werner, graduate student in geosciences. "Up until now, researchers have estimated the amounts of naturally released carbon dioxide by counting and evaluating active volcanos."

Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. Estimating the amounts of naturally occurring carbon dioxide can help scientists determine the contribution of humans to global carbon dioxide.

Using a statistically designed sampling method, Werner and Dr. Susan Brantley, professor of geosciences, investigated the northeastern section of Yellowstone for carbon dioxide out gassing. Their method was based on measured emissions rather than any visual cues in the area.

"Until recently, we assumed that active mudpots would be the locations of most of the carbon dioxide degassing," Werner told attendees today (Oct. 11) at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union. "We have found that you cannot let your senses bias the research, especially with a gas that cannot be seen or smelled and that does not, in itself, destroy vegetation."

Most of the carbon dioxide measured by the Penn State team was not related to vents -- active mudpots. Some visually inactive areas gave off as much as 32,000 grams per square meter per day of carbon dioxide while crop areas produce usually less than 30 grams per square meter per day and healthy forest only 20 grams per square meter per day.

Yellowstone is famous for its volcanic activity with geysers -- vents of steam created when underground magma heats the earth beneath groundwater until steam is forced explosively upward -- the best known. However, geysers make up only a small portion of the activity in the Yellowstone caldera, formed by the Lava Creek eruption some 650,000 years ago.

Mudpots are found in the northeastern acid sulfate area of the park and form when gases rise to the surface and sulfur compounds mix with water to form highly acidic solutions that dissolve the rocks. These bubbling pools are not boiling, although most mudpots are hot. Escaping gases causes the activity in the same way a bottle of soda will bubble over if shaken.

The volcanic activity at Yellowstone is similar to that in the Hawaiian Islands and is due to a hot spot beneath the Earth's crust. This differs from the vulcanism seen at Mt. St. Helens in the Cascade Mountains, which occurs when one tectonic plate moves beneath another and the edge of the plate forms a molten region.

"We know that Yellowstone is a hot spot volcanic region and the helium isotopes there have a signature similar to that of the volcanos in Hawaii, rather than the crustal volcanos in the Cascades," says Werner.

One area where the researchers found high levels of carbon dioxide was a grassy field surrounded by healthy forest. The area did not look like a mudpot, but closer examination and soil samples indicated that it had been a mudpot in the past and was filled in.

Earthquakes, which are prevalent in the area, can cause the pathways for escaping gases to alter and mudpots come and go.

Other areas with unexpectedly high levels appeared to be new mudpots in their early stages. Both nascent and dying mudpots can produce more carbon dioxide than active mudpots.

EDITORS: Ms. Werner may be reached at (814) 863-7516 or by email. Dr. Brantley may be reached at (814) 863-1739 or by email.

Penn State

Related Yellowstone Articles from Brightsurf:

Discovery of ancient super-eruptions indicates the yellowstone hotspot may be waning
Throughout Earth's long history, volcanic super-eruptions have been some of the most extreme events ever to affect our planet's rugged surface.

Reintroduction of wolves tied to return of tall willows in Yellowstone National Park
The reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park is tied to the recovery of tall willows in the park, according to a new Oregon State University-led study.

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.

Read More: Yellowstone News and Yellowstone Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to