On March 1, 1872, Yellowstone became the first national park for all to enjoy the unique hydrothermal and geologic wonders. Ungulates—bison, elk, pronghorn, moose, and deer—migrate seasonally and move across the landscape following the new growth of grasses, when forage is at its most nutritious.
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Yellowstone was set aside as the world’s first national park because of its hydrothermal wonders. The park contains more than 10,000 thermal features, including the world’s greatest concentration of geysers as well as hot springs, mudpots, and steam vents. Research on heat-resistant microbes in the park’s thermal areas has led to medical, forensic, and commercial uses. Oil, gas, and groundwater development near the park, and drilling in “Known Geothermal Resources Areas” identified by the US Geological Survey in Island Park, Idaho, and Corwin Springs, Montana, could alter the functioning of hydrothermal systems in the park. So in 1994, the National Park Service and State of Montana established a waterrights compact and controlled-groundwater area to protect those areas from development.
Under the Surface
The park’s hydrothermal system is the visible expression of the immense Yellowstone volcano; it would not exist without the underlying partially molten magma body that releases tremendous heat. The system also requires water, such as ground water from the mountains surrounding the Yellowstone Plateau. There, snow and rain slowly percolate through layers of permeable rock riddled with cracks. Some of this cold water meets hot brine directly heated by the shallow magma body. The water’s temperature rises well above the boiling point, but the water remains in a liquid state due to the great pressure and weight of the overlying water. The result is superheated water with temperatures exceeding 400°F.
The superheated water is less dense than the colder, heavier water sinking around it. This creates convection currents that allow the lighter, more buoyant, superheated water to begin its journey back to the surface following the cracks and weak areas through rhyolitic lava flows. This upward path is the natural “plumbing” system of the park’s hydrothermal features.
As hot water travels through this rock, it dissolves some silica in the rhyolite. This silica can precipitate in the cracks, increasing the system’s ability to withstand the great pressure needed to produce a geyser.
At the surface, silica precipitates to form siliceous sinter, creating the scalloped edges of hot springs and the seemingly barren landscape of hydrothermal basins. The siliceous sinter deposits, with bulbous or cauliflower-like surfaces, are known as geyserite.
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