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Geophysical imaging of the Yellowstone hydrothermal plumbing system

March 23, 2022

The nature of Yellowstone National Park’s plumbing system linking deep thermal fluids to its legendary thermal features is virtually unknown. The prevailing concepts of Yellowstone hydrology and chemistry are that fluids reside in reservoirs with unknown geometries, flow laterally from distal sources and emerge at the edges of lava flows. Here we present a high-resolution synoptic view of pathways of the Yellowstone hydrothermal system derived from electrical resistivity and magnetic susceptibility models of airborne geophysical data. Groundwater and thermal fluids containing appreciable total dissolved solids significantly reduce resistivities of porous volcanic rocks and are differentiated by their resistivity signatures. Clay sequences mapped in thermal areas and boreholes typically form at depths of less than 1,000  metres over fault-controlled thermal fluid and/or gas conduits. We show that most thermal features are located above high-flux conduits along buried faults capped with clay that has low resistivity and low susceptibility. Shallow subhorizontal pathways feed groundwater into basins that mixes with thermal fluids from vertical conduits. These mixed fluids emerge at the surface, controlled by surficial permeability, and flow outwards along deeper brecciated layers. These outflows, continuing between the geyser basins, mix with local groundwater and thermal fluids to produce the observed geochemical signatures. Our high-fidelity images inform geochemical and groundwater models for hydrothermal systems worldwide.

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