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December 12, 2022

The historic flooding event, caused by an “atmospheric river,” that hit the northern areas of Yellowstone from June 10-13, 2022, forever changed the flow-path of the Gardner River and the road between Mammoth Hot Springs and the town of Gardiner, MT. A September field trip to service a monitoring station along the Gardner River emphasized some of these extraordinary changes.

Yellowstone Caldera Chronicles is a weekly column written by scientists and collaborators of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory. This week's contribution is from Blaine McCleskey and David Roth, research chemists with the U.S. Geological Survey.

From June 10–13, 2022, several inches of rain fell in the northern parts of Yellowstone National Park, which was blanketed by a large snowpack at the time that was late to melt because of a cool spring. The large amount of rain combined with the rapid melting of snow created historic flooding in the Gardner, Lamar, and Yellowstone Rivers. The peak flow in the Gardner River during the 2022 flood event was provisionally determined to be 2890 cubic feet per second (CFS) compared to an average peak snowmelt flow of 800 CFS—nearly 4 times the average peak flow! Similarly, the peak flow during the 2022 flood event in the Yellowstone River at Corwin Springs, north of Yellowstone National Park, was provisionally determined to be 49,400 CFS, whereas the median peak during snowmelt is 12,000 CFS.  

Yellowstone River level and discharge during June 9–16, 2022, at Corwin Springs streamgage north of Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone River level (left) and discharge (right) during June 9–16, 2022, measured at the Corwin Springs streamgage just north of Yellowstone National Park (,00060,00010).  The previous record flooding event at the site was in 1918, when the level was at 11.5 feet and discharge was measured at about 32,000 cubic feet per second.  The flooding of June 13, 2022, shattered that record, with a level of almost 14 feet and a preliminary discharge of about 50,000 cubic feet per second.  Data from this site extend back to 1892 and provide an exceptional example of the value of long-term monitoring for tracking, forecasting, and warning of flood events.
Boiling River, Yellowstone National Park, before and after the June 2022 flooding
Boiling River, Yellowstone National Park, before and after the June 2022 flooding.  (Left) Visitors to Yellowstone National Park enjoy the warm waters of the Gardner River where it is joined by Boiling River, near Mammoth Hot Springs.  Yellowstone National Park photo by Jim Peaco, July 30, 2014.  (Right) Aerial view of Gardner River and Boiling River, along with trails and viewing area, after the June 2022 flood. Yellowstone National Park photo by Jacob W. Franks, July 8, 2022.
Photo of a newly eroded cliff along the Gardner River, Yellowstone National Park
Photo of a newly eroded cliff along the Gardner River, Yellowstone National Park, showing the unconsolidated layers of sandstone and gravel. USGS photo by David Roth, September 5, 2022.

The Boiling River is a hot stream emerging from beneath a travertine ledge that flows for about 150 yards before discharging into the Gardner River. Downstream from where the Boiling River and Gardner River combine is a popular area for tourists to take a soak in warm thermal waters—one of the more popular swim holes in Yellowstone National Park. It is thought that a significant portion of the outflow from Mammoth Hot Springs becomes subterranean in the porous ground at several known sinkholes near the downstream end of the Mammoth terraces and then resurfaces as the Boiling River. Interestingly, the Boiling River discharge only increased to about 32 CFS from about 30 CFS during the storm. The Boiling River emerges high in the Gardner Canyon in an area that underwent a “Dramatic Shape Shift” as a result of the storm. The new streambed is narrower, and the main channel shifted to the far bank. Further north, the trail from a parking lot to the Boiling River was washed away.

The surficial geology in Gardner Canyon consists of unconsolidated materials from a large landslide along the western bank of the Gardner River, and cliffs consisting of shale, sandstone, and gravel layers on the eastern bank. This unconsolidated material is highly susceptible to erosion, and during the storm much of the banks, including parts of Highway 89, were washed away. Large amounts of debris made up of rocks and sediment were deposited downstream along the beds of the Gardiner and Yellowstone Rivers. Some of this debris was deposited on top of a river chemistry monitoring station located along the Gardner River just upstream from the Rescue Creek trailhead.

This is a map of river chemistry monitoring sites in Yellowstone National Park.
Map of river chemistry monitoring sites in Yellowstone National Park.

The monitoring site along the Gardner River is part of a network used to track hydrothermal activity in Yellowstone, measuring the amount of chloride in the major rivers to determine the amount of thermal water that is discharged from the region’s hot springs and geysers. Specific conductance, which measures the concentration of dissolved chloride ions in the water, is a proxy for chloride, and specific conductance probes are deployed at 10 monitoring sites in and around Yellowstone National Park, including the Gardner River site. The advantage of using specific conductance is that high-frequency measurements (every 15-minutes) are possible, providing the ability to capture changes in chemistry caused by short-term events like geyser eruptions and even flooding.

The changes at the monitoring site following the storm are amazing! Surprisingly a nearby tree and the monitoring site itself remained in place during the storm, providing a benchmark to measure the changes in stream morphology. Approximately 4 feet of debris now covers the site, burying the specific conductance monitoring equipment. The flow path of the stream also changed substantially. At the monitoring location, the river moved about 30 feet to the east and appears to be narrower and deeper than before. While this is a relatively small example, it shows how extreme events are the drivers of changes in the shapes and courses of rivers.

Despite being buried under several feet of rocks and sediment, the specific conductance probe collected data throughout the storm event and for several months afterward. Specific conductance, in conjunction with the river discharge, can provide some information as to the timing of events. Specific conductance is a measure of the dissolved salts in the river, and from June 10–12 the specific conductance decreased slightly, probably due to increasing water relatively to the salts from snow and rain. The specific conductance then suddenly increased by a factor of about 4 on June 13, coincident with the peak discharge. A large portion of the bank erosion likely occurred during peak flow, and during this time the sediment and dissolved salts substantially increased in the river! After the storm peak passed, the specific conductance decreased for a few hours before increasing again. By this time, the probe was probably buried under a large quantity of rocks and sediment. It is unclear why the specific conductance increased at this time, but one possibility is that the buried sediment surrounding the probe was saturated with water that was dissolving the salts held in the sediment.

Gardner River chloride flux monitoring site before and after the June 2022 flooding in Yellowstone National Park
Gardner River chloride flux monitoring site before and after the June 2022 flooding in Yellowstone National Park.  (Left) Site prior to June 2022 storm. Note that the riverbank is near to the base of the fallen tree. USGS photo by Blaine McCleskey, May 21, 2014.  (Right) Site after June 2022 storm. The probe is buried under ~4 feet of debris. USGS photo by Blaine McCleskey, September 5, 2022.

The monitoring station has been relocated, and additional measurements and testing are being undertaken to develop a new specific conductance-chloride proxy for the Gardner River. Despite the flood, monitoring efforts to track changes in Yellowstone’s River systems continue!

Discharge and specific conductance measured in June 2022 at the Gardner River, Yellowstone National Park
Graph showing the discharge (blue) and specific conductance (black) measured at the Gardner River monitoring station in Yellowstone National Park during the June 10–13, 2022, flood.


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