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What is hydrothermal alteration, and why is it important? Most visitors to Yellowstone National Park are only vaguely aware of hydrothermal (hot water) alteration (chemical and mineral reactions with hot water).

Closeup of a wall of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone showing red, orange, and yellow mineral alternation, as well as white v
Closeup of a wall of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone showing red, orange, and yellow mineral alternation, as well as white veins of silica, in the subsurface alteration zone of a former thermal basin. (Credit: Pat Shanks Public domain.)

Yellowstone Caldera Chronicles is a weekly column written by scientists and collaborators of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory. This week's contribution is from geologist Pat Shanks, Scientist Emeritus with the U.S. Geological Survey.

Hydrothermal alteration changes the composition of natural thermal fluids and, over time, can substantially alter the make-up, appearance, and physical properties of rocks. In addition, without hydrothermal alteration, Yellowstone would not have sinter deposits like at Castle Geyser (Upper Geyser Basin) or Fishing Cone (West Thumb Geyser Basin), travertine deposits like those at Mammoth Hot Springs, or mud pots like those at Mud Volcano or Fountain Paint Pots. And rocks exposed in Yellowstone would be far less colorful and varied without changes caused by hydrothermal alteration.

Let's briefly examine how hydrothermal alteration works, and then look at few examples. The different types of hydrothermal waters in Yellowstone include: 1. Silica-rich alkaline-chloride waters, 2. acid-sulfate waters, 3. calcium-carbonate waters, and 4. gas and steam in fumaroles. The waters that eventually become hot springs are from rain and snow that recharges rivers, lakes, and subsurface aquifers. As these waters flow deep beneath the ground, they are heated due to thermal flux from the magma reservoir beneath the caldera to become hydrothermal fluids.

Mudpots that occur in thermal basins throughout Yellowstone National Park are one of the most visible and colorful manifestations of hydrothermal alteration at the surface. Mudpots are created by acid sulfate fluids that consist of gases derived from boiling and also from deep magma (mainly carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide) that mixs with near-surface waters. The hydrogen sulfide reacts with oxygen to form sulfuric acid, creating very acidic waters that aggressively react with rocks and create mudpots at the surface and hydrothermally altered rocks in the shallow (less than a few hundred meters depth) subsurface.

Artist Paint Pots and harcoal-gray mud from Mud Volcano consisting of kaolinite with fine-grained pyrite and other iron sulfide
Alteration associated with mud pots in Yellowstone National Park. Left image is an overview of Artist Paint Pots. Note the white kaolinite alteration in the lower right and the red/pink mud pots near the boardwalk. Right image is charcoal-gray mud from Mud Volcano consisting of kaolinite with fine-grained pyrite and other iron sulfide minerals. (Credit: Pat Shanks Public domain.)

Much is known about subsurface hydrothermal alteration related to geyser and thermal basins in the Park due to a research drilling program carried out by the USGS in the late 1960's that sampled rocks as deep as 332 m (1088 ft). Numerous studies by USGS (see below) and other researchers have shown two types of alteration: 1. alkaline-chloride water alteration that produced minerals like chalcedony, quartz, chlorite, calcite, rhodochrosite, mordenite, fluorite, pyrite, and smectite, and 2. later acid-steam alteration in cores and in surface mudpots produces opal, kaolinite, alunite, pyrite, and smectite.

An important exposure of hydrothermally altered rocks occurs in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, where dramatic yellow, orange, and red rocks and sediments are a result of hydrothermal alteration of rhyolite volcanic rocks. The outcrops in the incised canyon provide a unique opportunity to view the exposure of what was once the subsurface portion of a significant thermal basin.

Some studies (see below) show that hydrothermal alteration of high-silica rhyolite produces adularia, clay minerals, silica minerals, disseminated pyrite and marcasite, zeolite minerals, iron oxides, native sulfur, and sulfate minerals. This is what gives the Canyon its spectacular colors.

Downstream a few miles from the Lower Falls at the Seven Mile Hole hydrothermal area, distinct zoning is apparent where the rhyolites in upper ~100 m of the canyon are altered to opal and chalcedony, kaolinite, alunite and minor barite, and disseminated pyrite and marcasite by acid-sulfate fluids at temperatures below ~150 °C. Deeper in the canyon, an assemblage of quartz, illite, and adularia formed by reaction of rhyolitic rocks with alkaline-chloride fluids at temperatures above ~150 °C.

Hydrothermal alternation is everywhere you look in Yellowstone. It's happening right now at the many thermalbasins, and evidence of it happening in the past is in he colorful rocks all across the landscape.

Lava Creek Tuff at two different locations.
Example of how the same rock type can look very different due to hydrothermal alteration. Left image is of the Lava Creek Tuff, which erupted during the formation of Yellowstone caldera 631,000 years ago, near Tower Junction. Right image is the same geological unit -- the Lava Creek Tuff -- at Monument Geyser Basin, where it has been heavily altered by hydrothermal activity. (Credit: Pat Shanks Public domain.)

Additional reading:

Bargar, K.E. and Muffler, L.J.P., 1982, Hydrothermal alteration in research drill hole Y-11 from a vapor-dominated geothermal system at Mud Volcano, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming: Thirty-Third Annual Field Conference, 1982, Wyoming Geological Association Guidebook, p. 139–152. [Also available at]

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