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8 comments

Yellowstone National Park - Hot and Steamy (Part 1)

Posted October 06, 2008 12:01 AM by SavvyExacta

What's hot as lava, cold as snow, and larger than the state of Rhode Island? Yellowstone National Park! Spanning parts of Wyoming and Montana, Yellowstone contains more than half the world's geysers and thermal activity, a landscape that varies between high peaks and its own Grand Canyon, and weather that can span all four seasons in one day.

In CR4's Animal Science blog, I've written about my experiences observing the park's wildlife, which includes bison, bears, elk, and wolves. Here, in the first installment of a four-part series, Techno Tourist will guide you through geysers like the well-known Old Faithful, as well as Yellowstone's less famous (but perhaps more spectacular) thermal features. After wrapping up our visit to these thermal areas, Techno Tourist will explore the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone and visit Grand Teton National Park, Yellowstone's southern neighbor.

What are Thermal Features?

The term "thermal feature" sounds like a television special, but it's actually a hole in the Earth's crust where hot water, steam (geysers), and gases and vapors (fumaroles) can escape. Included in the list is the iconic Old Faithful , which (because of its age) is not so faithful anymore. When I visited Yellowstone, Old Faithful was predicted to go off at 5:15 PM; it could be ten minutes early or late. At 5:25, we were finally sprayed with mist as the wind pushed the geyser's steam toward the crowd.

While geysers can be either intermittent (like Old Faithful) or continuous (like one of its neighbors), fumaroles emit mixtures of steam and gas and are commonly called steam vents. Fumaroles often release hydrogen sulfide, which oxidizes to sulfuric acid and sulfur. This explains the horrible smell that wafts from and lingers around most of the thermal features in the park. Some fumaroles smell worse than others, but all of the areas with thermal activity have at least a hint of sulfur in the air.

Another big attraction in the thermal areas is the hot springs, or heated pools of water. Heat from deep under the Earth circulates near the water table and warms the springs. The pools are created as the water inches its way up through cracks in the Earth's crust. Temperatures average about 180 degrees Fahrenheit, but can reach over 400 degrees! There are, however, a few pools in the park that are "cool" enough to take a dip in.

Editor's Note: Part 2 of this four-part series will run next week, right here in TechnoTourist's Engineering Expeditions.

Resources:

http://www.usgs.gov/science/science.php?term=1149&type=feature

http://pubs.usgs.gov/gip/volc/geysers.html

http://www.yellowstoneparknet.com/roads_routes/mammoth_to_norris_geyser_basin.php

http://dsc.discovery.com/convergence/supervolcano/under/under.html

http://www.yellowstoneparknet.com/geothermal_features/hot_springs.php

http://whyfiles.org/022critters/hot_bact.html

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Guru
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#1

Re: Yellowstone National Park - Hot and Steamy (Part 1)

10/06/2008 10:17 AM

Haha. Yellowstone National Park > Rhode Island. That is really funny.

I like how the geysers were explained. I never knew that hydrogen sulfide was released. I am sure that glade plug in candle can make that go away!

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#2
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Re: Yellowstone National Park - Hot and Steamy (Part 1)

10/06/2008 10:51 AM

I wish a candle would've helped! Some of them were on the mild side, but one was so bad we could barely stand the smell from inside the car - we had planned to hike around, but just drove on by!

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#3

Re: Yellowstone National Park - Hot and Steamy (Part 1)

10/07/2008 1:41 AM

Bush was criticized for allegedly cutting back on geothermal development funding. Whether that assertion is legitimate or not is difficult to verify. However, the funding has been pumped again so it appears possible that some method can be developed to harness the geothermal energy that the Yellowstone area represents.

Frankly, I'm surprised that there is no dialogue in the media or in the scientific community on the vastness of the Yellowstone caldera and the enormous pool of energy all that lava represents.

It's fortuitous that its relatively benign. The size of any eruption from so vast a resource would cause enormous damage to at least half the Country or at least so say the vulcanologist's.

It seems rather strange that at a time when so much effort is being made to relieve this Country from foreign energy dependence, that no concerted effort to harness Yellowstone's energy is in the pipeline.

L. J

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#4
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Re: Yellowstone National Park - Hot and Steamy (Part 1)

10/07/2008 6:49 AM

You bring up a good point. With all of the media hype on alternative energy, most of what you hear about is solar, wind and nuclear. There seems to be very little said about geothermal. I think that this is a vast untapped resource, right under our noses, that we are ignoring.

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#5
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Re: Yellowstone National Park - Hot and Steamy (Part 1)

10/07/2008 7:56 AM

I'm glad to hear there is funding for research in this area - people are finally waking up to look for means of alternative energy. Here's a preview to Part 2 in this series - the Yellowstone caldera has "blown its top" roughly every 600,000 to a million years - and could go again within the next 60,000. I'm thinking this potential instability may be one reason for leaving Yellowstone alone.

The fact that it's located in a National Park may be the other - I'm not sure what the exact regulations are for such areas, but I have a feeling energy use would require major legislation changes and would be met by a lot of protest.

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#6
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Re: Yellowstone National Park - Hot and Steamy (Part 1)

10/08/2008 12:13 AM

If the caldera blows it will be a major disaster in north America.

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#7

Re: Yellowstone National Park - Hot and Steamy (Part 1)

10/08/2008 3:42 AM

Hi,

drilling to near an active volcano has been done in Japan and at temperatures near 550°C some equipment failed.

So there will be necessary a major effort to go to temperatures that high or higher.

There are plans inside the geological deep-drilling community to pierce a volcano in uninhabited northern Iceland.

Nobody is totally sure that this drilling into or near to a magma chamber is safe.

The surrounding rocks are fragmented and veins of very hot - may be liquid - material exist.

The magma may contain superheated water that is explosive on pressure relieve.

The bore-hole may add some water to the magma locally and this may result in local very high pressure.

If drilling was successful there is the need to either circulate water or extract the water from existing heated groundwater.

To use a heat exchanger down in the bore-hole will be more or less impossible.

So there has to be brought up very hot - may be supercritical - water or steam.

This with not too high heat loss - else inefficient.

The water that had contact to hot rocks at pressure will typically have dissolved 10% of its weight an assortment of minerals from the rocks. These will crystallise and corrode the metallic tubings on the way up and in the heat exchanger.

So the energy is there - a lot of fundamental research has to be done, I would not start with this complex supervolcanos as Yellowstone but more simple ones are abundant.

Prepare the people that some unusual events may happen. There have been some earthquakes above mag 3 that stopped (by protesters) the hydraulic hot dry rock cracking for a geothermal project near Basel, Switzerland.

If tapping volcanoes will have a breakthrough then there is a big amount of energy waiting. So this may be the best investment we can think of. Let this be known to everybody will help.

RHABE

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#8
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Re: Yellowstone National Park - Hot and Steamy (Part 1)

10/08/2008 7:48 AM

Thanks for the info - I certainly didn't know that much about super volcanoes or drilling into volcanoes for energy use. I agree, lesser volcanoes - or at least volcanoes in areas less inhabited or that are not in preservation areas like Yellowstone should be "experimented" with first.

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