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A newly emerging thermal area in Yellowstone

June 23, 2020

Yellowstone is a large restless caldera that contains many dynamic thermal areas that are the surface expression of the deeper magmatic system. In 2018, using a Landsat 8 nighttime thermal infrared image, we discovered the emergence of a new thermal area located near Tern Lake on the northeast margin of the Sour Creek dome. A high-spatial-resolution airborne visible image from August 2017 revealed a large (~33,000 m2) area of recently fallen trees, mostly devoid of vegetation, with bright soil, similar to other nearby thermal areas. Field observations in August 2019 confirmed that this was a steam-heated acid-sulfate thermal area, with an arc-shaped zone of hydrothermally altered soil and heated ground, with surface temperatures of 60-80 °C, several steaming fumaroles, and boiling temperatures (93 °C) just beneath the surface. Fallen trees in contact with warm ground were being carbonized, yet there were some cooler areas with new trees growing. Observations of stressed or dying vegetation from archived satellite and airborne remote sensing data going back to 1994 indicated that this thermal area started emerging around 2000. It increased in size slowly until around 2005, when the radiative heat output started measurably increasing. From 2005 to 2012 it grew more rapidly; and from 2012 through 2019 the growth rate slowed and the heat output stabilized. We predict that this stabilizing trend will continue in the coming years. The initial formation of this new thermal area was not clearly linked to any distinct seismic or geodetic events, although the period of rapid growth partly coincided with a period of rapid local uplift, possibly suggesting a causative relationship. The identification of this emerging thermal area illustrates the importance of satellite thermal infrared imaging combined with high-spatial-resolution remote sensing data and field observations for mapping, measuring, and monitoring Yellowstone's thermal areas. It is also an example of the dynamics we expect to observe within large caldera systems like Yellowstone, where changes in the size and distribution of thermal areas are normal and do not indicate an impending eruption nor any significant changes in the broader magmatic system.

Publication Year 2020
Title A newly emerging thermal area in Yellowstone
DOI 10.3389/feart.2020.00204
Authors R. Greg Vaughan, Jefferson Hungerford, Bill Keller
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Frontiers in Earth Science
Index ID 70211703
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Astrogeology Science Center