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Yellowstone’s waters have been a subject of intense study for well over a century. A new database is now available summarizing water chemistry results that date to the 1880s!

Yellowstone Caldera Chronicles is a weekly column written by scientists and collaborators of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory. This week's contribution is from Margery Price, graduate student at the University of Oregon, Blaine McCleskey, research chemist with the U.S. Geological Survey, and Kirk Nordstrom, emeritus hydrogeochemist with the U.S. Geological Survey.

The brilliantly blue Sapphire Pool, Yellowstone National Park, steams on a stormy morning
Sapphire Pool, in Biscuit Basin, steams on a stormy morning. National Park Service photo by Jacob W. Frank, July 20, 2020.

Scientists have studied water chemistry in Yellowstone for more than 140 years. At hydrothermal features, rivers, streams, lakes, drillholes, and precipitation gages, as well as in laboratories across the country, researchers measure the chemical constituents of Yellowstone’s waters. This ever-expanding body of research includes work by hundreds of scientists from numerous disciplines and institutions.

This abundance of data is a testament to the enduring scientific and cultural value of water chemistry research in Yellowstone. As a result of this collective multigenerational effort, it is possible to examine broad patterns across space and time, learning more about trends in the park’s hydrologic and geologic systems and guiding future research. With much of this work published prior to the advent of modern computer technologies, however, access to historical data has been limited. Many reports are preserved only in paper copy or low-resolution scanned PDFs, making it challenging and time-consuming to locate, extract, and use their data.

To address this problem, a new U.S. Geological Survey data release has compiled data from dozens of historical and modern reports on Yellowstone water chemistry. These works span from the iconic 1888 report by U.S. Geological Survey scientists Frank Gooch and James Whitfield, to modern analyses from 2021, and includes work by prominent Yellowstone researchers like Bob Fournier, Mike Thompson, Al Truesdell, and Don White. The dataset includes information from water samples collected in the Yellowstone region over the last 140 years, as well as details about location and date, sampling methods, and quality-control procedures taken to confirm the reliability of the data. 

Map of the locations of water samples collected in and around Yellowstone National Park, 1883-2021
Map of the locations of water samples collected in and around Yellowstone National Park and detailed in the USGS Data Release "Historic Water Chemistry Data for Thermal Features, Streams, and Rivers in the Yellowstone National Park Area, 1883-2021." Colors indicate type of water sample.

This project is the largest water quality dataset ever compiled on Yellowstone: it combines data for 4,918 discrete samples from 38 different published reports between 1883 and 2021, as well as data collected but never published by multiple USGS research groups. Across all these sources, more than 100 types of results are reported, including basic field measurements (such as temperature, pH, and specific conductance), major ion concentrations, trace metals, redox species of sulfur, arsenic, and iron, various isotopes, and tritium, among others. More than 600 individual features (including rivers and streams, hydrothermal features, drillholes, and precipitation gages) in and around the park are represented. These data were compiled through careful analysis of available paper and digital copies of publications, manual digitization of tables, and thorough checking for erroneous values or duplicated samples. Sample information has been harmonized so all results are reported in the same order and with the same units. More information on the production and quality assurance/quality control (QA/QC) process of making the dataset can be found in the project’s metadata file on the data release landing page.

This dataset is designed to simplify the exploration of trends in Yellowstone water chemistry, providing both a comprehensive body of analyses and detailed descriptions of who examined particular aspects of the system and where their reports can be found. Users can sort the data by sample collection date, sample type, collection area or location, original report, or any of the 100 reported chemical analytes. From Arnold Hague (1880s) to Eugene Allen and Arthur Day (1930s) to Kirk Nordstrom, Jim Ball, Blaine McCleskey, and others (1990s to 2020s), a wealth of water chemistry data is now readily available for everyone from research geochemists to casual enquirers.

The data release, "Historic Water Chemistry Data for Thermal Features, Streams, and Rivers in the Yellowstone National Park Area, 1883-2021," is available from the USGS ScienceBase catalog (

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