EARTH AT ITS MOST DRAMATIC: YELLOWSTONE PARK’S THERMALS

 

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One of the most extraordinary experiences for me occurred at the magnificent Yellowstone  National Park pre-pandemic.  I must say at the outset that photos cannot do justice to the absolutely otherworldly experience – I was a personal observer to earth at its most elemental, violent yet life giving moments.  Let me explain.

The park’s hydrothermal (heated water in the earth’s crust)  system is due to  the immense underground Yellowstone volcano;

Ground water that comes from the mountains surrounding this Yellowstone Plateau feed this hydrothermal system, and the temperature of the water heated by the underground volcano’s magma superheats to over 400degrees F, but stays liquid due to the tremendous pressure.  The superheated water, being less dense than the colder, heavier water around it creates currents that push the superheated waters towards the surface. It reached the surface in a number of ways:  geysers, hot springs, mud pots and fumaroles – there are over 10,000 different hydrothermal features active in Yellowstone.

Most of you are no doubt familiar with Yellowstone’s most famous Geyser, Old Faithful:

The irony is that Od faithful is not the most powerful geyser in Yellowstone nor the most spectacular.  I do believe its popularity is due to the ease in seeing it – on a large plateau  right it front of the Old Faithful Inn which provides comfortable  seating where you can have a celebratory cocktail while watching Old Faithful do its thing.

Honestly, while beautiful, I do not think this was my favorite feature.  The entire Upper Geyser Basin  contains the largest concentration and nearly one-quarter of all of the geysers in the world. Spouting geysers and steaming fumaroles (an opening in or near a volcano, through which hot sulfurous gases emerge give Old Faithful a run for its money as they produce scenes that must mimic the time of earth’s creation:

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But my favorite hydrothermal feature has the most dramatic, kaleidoscope of colors, dizziness beauty:  The Grand Prismatic Spring.  Before I show you pictures of this phenomenon, let me give you a brief primer on what you are about to see.

If the superheated heated water rises through cracks in the earth’s surface and there is no obstruction (as with geysers) the water emerges in a constant flow. It then cools and falls back into the depths of the spring, creating a cycle of heat rising and cool sinking. That’s not all.  Despite the incredibly high temperatures of these above activities, there are actually LIVING entities thriving within them. What can possibly live in this environment? Bacteria.  Now these organisms are not the disease-causing.  The bacteria here, called thermophiles (“heat-loving” microorganisms that thrive in hot temperatures) are among those that actually helped to make our oxygen rich atmosphere.  And, they do another thing that is so amazing – they amass in the trillions to create some of the most vivid colors I have ever seen.  Depending on the temperature of the water – whether it is just emerged from the earth’s depths super-hot or has cooled. the various bacteria find a perfect environment.  Here is a simple graph showing lifeforms at various temperatures.

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So depending on the heat levels of the water and the micro-organisms that live in those level,  hoy pools and springs can exhibit spectacularly vibrant colors.  Some are blue, like the:

TURQUOISE POOL – Temperature 142-160°F

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This next pool has a few layers of colors unfortunately due to human interference:

EMERALD POOL – Temperature 154.6°F Dimensions 27×38 feet. Depth 25 feet.

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The not super-hot water attracts yellow bacteria (and algae) and the clear water, as is the case with other bodies of water, reflects the blue color of the spectrum while absorbing the others.  If you remember your basic color rules, yellow+blue = green. Unfortunately vandals have thrown debris into the water upsetting the natural  process, lowering the water temperature and changing the bacteria that grow on the outside edges adding the colors orange and brown.

The piece du résistance?  The Grand Prismatic Spring.

GRAND PRISMATIC  SPRING  – Temperature 147-189°F Dimensions 250×380 feet.

Grand Prismatic is the largest hot spring in Yellowstone, and is one of the largest in the world.  The colors range from deep blue, green, yellow, orange to red. This hot spring is in a vast open area beset with wind gusts that have blown many a hat into the Do-Not-Enter area. This is not just an idle threat – the ground and waters are so hot and toxic that those who have ventured beyond the proscribed route have met with scalding and even death.  The wind gusts sometime cause the steam to cover the spring – but the result is often breathtaking as the steam takes on the colors.

In order to see the entire Grand Prismatic Pool one would have to either use a drone or helicopter to fly directly overhead.  There are benches along the path that helped to elevate my view – here are my photos, but even my best efforts can’t quite capture the magnificent beauty.  To start, here is a far shot of one corner so you can get an idea of the pool’s color spectrum:

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And it just keeps on coming:

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The dancing waters at Las Vegas’ Bellagio Hotel can’t hold a candle to these natural water  steam sprays. These pictures are natural and not adjusted.

To close here is an aerial shot taken from the internet:

 

Ain’t nature grand!

 

 

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