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New technologies help characterize hydrothermal activity at Yellowstone

Yellowstone National Park geologists Cheryl Jaworowski and Henry Heasler published a paper with two university colleagues to illustrate how two exciting new technologies can be used to characterize hydrothermal activity at Yellowstone National Park.

The report, published in Yellowstone Science, discusses collaborative research with Utah State University to create maps of surface temperatures by using FLIR (Forward Looking InfraRed) cameras flown from fixed-wing aircraft. The camera measures the amount of energy radiated in the infrared, and is an ideal technique to detect areas of geothermal activity. Combined with high-precision topographic data acquired by airborne LiDAR (Light Detection And Ranging) missions in 2008, the infrared maps reveal how heat is released from natural and manmade features scattered in and around Yellowstone’s geyser basins.

LIDAR and FLIR combined image help to inform scientists about Yello...
LIDAR and FLIR combined image help to inform scientists about Yellowstone's geologic past and geothermal activity.

In the image on the left, colored temperature contours from infrared imagery are draped over topography acquired by LiDAR for the area near Midway Geyser Basin. The Firehole River flows north through a narrow valley between the Biscuit Basin lava flow (hill at right) and the younger West Yellowstone lava flow (hills at left). In this area, thermal outlow from Excelsior Geyser, Grand Prismatic Spring and other geothermal features cause the temperature of the river to increase from 15°C to 30°C (59°F to 86°F) over a distance of about 2 km (1.2 miles). Small scarps (“cliffs” tens of inches tall) are visible in the high-precision LiDAR imagery and hint at the location of ancient flood deposits and their direction of flow. Floods bearing glacial sediments apparently flowed northward through the Firehole River drainage in this region, and also drained the small valley at the lower left corner of the image. Small circular features (highlighted) may represent areas of ancient hydrothermal explosions where thermal features had a forceful eruption and ruptured the ground surface. The limits of the thermal infrared data are shown by the thick black lines, one of which is seen just to the southwest of Grand Prismatic Spring.