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Science cowboys: The adventures of Yellowstone's early geologists

December 23, 2019

This preservation mandate made scientific research in YNP initially challenging to sort out—what is the balance between research and preservation, and how can you have one without the other? 

Yellowstone Caldera Chronicles is a weekly column written by scientists and collaborators of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory. This week's contribution is from Ken Sims, Professor of Geology and Geophysics at the University of Wyoming.


Porcelain Basin and Whirlgig Geyser. The green color of the stream ...
In September 2005, USGS/YVO Postdoctoral Fellow Brita Graham Wall used a radio-controlled camera, attached to a helium-filled balloon to take photos from the sky above the Norris Geyser Basin. Brita used these photos to gain insight into the distribution of cracks and fractures that feed the hot springs at Norris.

The Yellowstone Volcanic Plateau is a geologist's paradise—a natural laboratory hosting our world's largest, most profound, and visually stunning active continental hydrothermal system. Yellowstone is also our nation's first national park. As mandated during its establishment in 1872, Yellowstone National Park (YNP) became a national treasure to be protected for all in perpetuity: "… to provide for the preservation, from injury or spoliation, of all timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities, or wonders within, and their retention in their natural condition." (Yellowstone National Park Protection Act, 1872)

This preservation mandate made scientific research in YNP initially challenging to sort out—what is the balance between research and preservation, and how can you have one without the other? Fortunately for science, clarity came in 1919, when Horace Albright became YNP superintendent. Albright was an advocate for science, and he began allowing scientists from academic institutions and government agencies to collect geological specimens from within YNP. He saw value in understanding the geologic processes at work in Yellowstone, and maybe he even had the foresight to see how that understanding would be essential to the monitoring of all of Yellowstone's systems, including the Park's ecology.

Two prominent and adventurous geologists, Arthur Day and Eugene Allen, from the Geophysical Laboratory at Carnegie Institute in Washington (CIW), quickly acted on this welcoming environment to study Yellowstone and its hydrothermal systems. Day and Allen had recently published a book on the volcanic and hydrothermal geology of California's Lassen Peaki, and they wanted to conduct the same types of studies at Yellowstone. Albright issued a permit, and Day and Allen were given permission to take specimens that suited their scientific research. In his renowned generosity to science, Albright even allocated them laboratory space in the basement of the Mammoth Hot Springs canteen building and provided field assistance by a specially assigned park rangerii.

Arthur Day was also director of the Geophysical Laboratoryii and thus a very prominent and well-connected scientist, and he was soon able to amass the resources to conduct the first scientific drilling project in YNP. With the help of his CIW colleague, Clarence Fenner, Day oversaw the drilling of two holes for scientific research. The first borehole was drilled in the Upper Geyser Basin, near Old Faithful, because it represents a typical area of alkaline springs. The second borehole was drilled in Norris Geyser Basin as representative of an area with abundant acid sulfate waters.

While there was some concern about perturbing geyser behavior, including that of Old Faithful, drilling proceeded in Upper Geyser Basin without issue and reached a depth of 406 feet. In Norris, however, the tables turned. Drilling became exceedingly difficult. Clarence Fenner was perhaps a bit of a 'cowboy' (after all he was in Wyoming) and chose a site where abundant thermal emissions and extensive acid alteration assured extremely high heat flow and abundant convective fluid up flow. Essentially, Fenner drilled in the middle of what is known as Porcelain Basin, and the drilling did not go well.

"The pressure, which had ranged from 297 pounds to 250 pounds, dropped rather suddenly to 125 pounds. This looked as if the steam were finding new outlets, and in a short time it was evident that it was breaking through to the surface. Blowouts of steam, accompanied by crumbling and ejection of ground, appeared about 25 feet to the south, and the openings increased rapidly in size… A multitude of other vents, ranging from minute openings to some of several feet in diameter at the mouth appeared to the west and north".

With all systems failing catastrophically, drilling ceased 265 feet below the surfaceiii, But not without a greatly enhanced knowledge of Yellowstone's hydrothermal system, including subsurface temperature changes, geological conditions, and fluid circulation patterns that would not otherwise be known.

These early research efforts culminated in two classic and highly cited papers: Hot Springs of the Yellowstone National Parkiv, and Bore-Hole Investigations in Yellowstone Parkii—two seminal papers which ultimately laid the groundwork for our current understanding of Yellowstone's complex system of hydrothermal circulation. A system where heat, water, gas, and rock interact to create the large diversity of fluids found in Yellowstone's thermal features and ultimately enables the very life that may have been the earliest to form on Earth.

Thus began the long and fruitful relationship between geologists and YNP. To this day, scientific research in YNP still requires a permit, whereby methods, expected results, and potential impact on the Park's features and landscape are rigorously evaluated through both peer review and by permitting specialists from the National Park Service. The outcome is a partnership, perhaps akin to that envisioned by Albright 100 years ago, where scientists provide data on YNP systems that can then be used by the National Park Service to help preserve and protect the Park's natural resources "for the benefit and enjoyment of the people."v


i Day, A. L. and E. T. Allen (1925). The Volcanic Activity and Hot Springs of Lassen Peak, Carnegie Institution of Washington Publication, 360, Washington, D.C., 1925.

ii Historical perspective of A. L. Day and E. T. Allen and their research, and H. Albright and early scientific permitting in YNP come from: a) Biel, Alice Wondrak, The Bearer Has Permission: A Brief History of Research Permitting in Yellowstone National Park, Montana, 54 (no. 4), 16 – 31, Winter 2004. b) Allen, E. T., The hot springs of the Yellowstone National Park, Carnegie Institution of Washington News Service Bulletin Staff Edition, 4 (no. 1), 1 - 20, 1936; and, c) CIW Historical Chapters: Arthur L Day (1869- 1960), and Drilling Yellowstone.

iii Fenner, C. N. (1936) Bore-Hole Investigations in Yellowstone Park, The Journal of Geology, Vol. 44, No. 2, Part 2, pp. 225-315

iv Allen, E. T. and A. L. Day, (1935) Hot Springs of the Yellowstone National Park, Carnegie Institution of Washington Publication 466, Washington, D.C.

v "… to set apart a certain tract of land lying near the headwaters of the Yellowstone River as a public park... That the tract of land hereby reserved and withdrawn from settlement, occupancy, or sale under the laws of the United States, and dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people ..." President Ulysses Grant March 1, 1872.