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April 11, 2014
Leslie  Gordon, USGS 650-329-4006 lgordon@usgs.gov
Al Nash, NPS 307-344-2015 YELL_Public_Affairs@nps.gov

Science Report Guides Protection of Old Faithful Thermal Features and Historic Yellowstone Buildings

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Cover of the publication.
Open-File Report 2014-1058: Hydrogeology of the Old Faithful Area, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, and its Relevance to Natural Resources and Infrastructure

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. — A newly published scientific report on the geology and hydrology in the area around Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park includes suggestions on how to avoid harming the unique hydrothermal (hot water) features during maintenance of nearby park roads, utilities, and historic buildings.

Since 1872, park administrators have grappled with the delicate balance of preserving natural features while maximizing the ability of the public to enjoy and explore this natural wonderland. Over the past 50 years, visitation to YNP and Old Faithful has almost doubled, resulting in growing needs for parking, lodging, food service, and other essentials. Park administration must frequently consider the tradeoffs involved with simultaneously providing for public enjoyment of the area, maintaining cultural resources, and minimizing impacts to hydrothermal resources in an ever-changing landscape as hydrothermal features continuously migrate.

A panel of leading experts (The Old Faithful Science Review Panel) was convened by Yellowstone National Park to review and summarize the geological and hydrological understanding that can inform park management of the Upper Geyser Basin area. The report, written by U.S. Geological Survey and park geologists, working with university, and private-sector scientists, includes a discussion of the local rock types, and water chemistry, and the behavior of geysers and other features within the hydrothermal system. The panel of scientists also reviewed the effects of infrastructure (utilities, roads, buildings) on thermal features and vice versa.

"Infrastructure and thermal ground don't easily coexist. Hot ground isn't good for buildings, roads and pipelines; conversely, parking lots and sewer lines disrupt the natural hydrology,” explained USGS Geologist and Science Review Panel Co-Chair Jacob Lowenstern. “The popularity of Yellowstone is only increasing with time, so the park needs to consider means to minimize the human impact on both its cultural and natural resources."

The report identifies knowledge gaps and suggests topics for further research. It includes a variety of techniques that can assist park managers as they evaluate options for future management of the Old Faithful area. It also includes suggestions on how to avoid harm to changing and sometimes migrating thermal features during maintenance of critical infrastructure such as the nearby lodging, including the historic Old Faithful Inn.

Visitors watching an eruption of Old Faithful Geyser from the Old Faithful Inn's balcony Photo by: Jim Peaco, Yellowstone National Park (August 2013).
Visitors watching an eruption of Old Faithful Geyser from the Old Faithful Inn's balcony. Photo by: Jim Peaco, Yellowstone National Park (August 2013). (Multimedia Gallery)

“This report, based on the symposium held last June and the deliberative work of the panel, serves as a starting point for management of the most intensively visited location within Yellowstone National Park,” said Dan Wenk, Yellowstone National Park Superintendent. “There may be no place on earth that presents the challenges where such iconic natural and cultural features are within such a short distance of each other.”

Increased research and monitoring of changing temperatures and natural chemical compositions of the waters of the many geysers in the Old Faithful area will help assess whether the long-term changes in eruptive behavior are related to local human impacts or natural regional meteorological or hydrologic factors. Monitoring groundwater levels, and the changes in frequency and the amount of hot water erupted from the geysers will give scientists a better understanding of the underground dynamics of moving fluids, and the many complex factors that affect the geyser’s behavior. 

Weighing both the costs and usefulness, the report recommends which scientific studies would be of most benefit for immediate and long-term park infrastructure planning and management, and emphasizes the important role of science in informed stewardship of the park. Comprehensive assessment and archiving of existing data, and development of an Old Faithful-specific hydrothermal monitoring plan are suggested as high priorities.

The report also addresses a host of related issues regarding cultural resources, facilities maintenance, traffic control, visitor services, and law enforcement—all of which require thoughtful balancing and prioritization. Faced with considerable uncertainty, and given the high value placed on hydrothermal features in the Old Faithful area, the report encourages the application of the precautionary principle in any decisions. 

To balance the protection of the hydrothermal system with infrastructure needs in the Old Faithful area, the report recommends delineating zones of varying degrees of hydrothermal activity, and managing infrastructure accordingly. “Green” zones where there is no evidence of hydrothermal activity might have no constraints on infrastructure, whereas in “red” zones of active hydrothermal activity, building new structures would be prohibited, and special protocols developed for the maintenance of existing infrastructure.

The full report of the Old Faithful Science Review Panel, “Hydrogeology of the Old Faithful Area, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, and its Relevance to Natural Resources and Infrastructure,” U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2014-1058, is available online.

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