Monday, February 11, 2008

Yellowstone National Park

In the northeast corner of Wyoming, Flat Stanley experienced his most brave adventure to date; touring around the mega-volcano of Yellowstone National Park. At the heart of the park is a 30x45 mile volcanic caldera, a collapsed valley poised directly above the center of the volcanic activity. Holes and cracks in the valley floor, as well as in the immediately adjacent lands, provide deep chambers for water to be heated by the Earth’s core, only to rise up again in the boiling water of hot springs, the irregular showering bursts of geysers, and the belching steam of fumaroles.

If anything can be implied from the pattern of historical eruptions, this mega-volcano is poised to blow its top any day now. Walking around the trails, you could tell that the very ground beneath your feet was far from being settled or fixed. The land bubbled and hissed in a surreal fashion, like what you may imagine walking on a different planet may be like. The park rangers will point out regions that used to be fully populated by trees and scrub grass a mere 50 years ago, which stands today as a desolate patch of bare earth. Some shift or change just below the crust had elevated the ground temperatures to make it inhospitable for the native plants. Warning signs are plastered all over saying to stay on the path, or else you are risking your life. Flat Stanley couldn’t help but wonder how many times the park rangers come across fully cooked buffalo that had fallen through the fragile surface crust into a bath of scolding hot mineral water.

Speaking of how water, it was interesting to see the way that bacterial life in and around the hot springs served as living thermometers. The green, red, orange, and brown bacteria each had their own levels of heat tolerance. Often times you could see a bacterial rainbow at drainage flows which come off the hot springs. There were often boardwalk pathways to bring you right up next to the hot springs, close enough to get a hint of their deep blue caverns, to feel the hot steamy mist in your face, and to get a nose-full the stinky gases which escaped from the springs. Unfortunately, the boardwalks were not at all elevated more than about a foot, so you could not fully appreciate the beauty of the blue wells ringed with a fringe of colorful microorganisms.

Mammoth Hot Springs were truly a site to see. From the base elevation, an imposing visage of a multi-story, gray-tiered mound seemed to rise up from an otherwise tranquil valley. Upon close inspection, you could see that the mound was built from millions of fine layered deposits of travertine (a form of calcium carbonate). The boiling hot water had dissolved deposits of calcium carbonate below the Earth’s surface, and then carried the mineral as convection currents brought the warmer waters from below up to the sun’s light. As the water leaked out from the spring onto the surrounding grounds, it left behind this mineral. The mineral built up in various locations and formations, ultimately resulting in an incredibly complex series of pooled terraces. The terrace formation is still ongoing, and threatens much of the adjacent plant life.

Flat Stanley crossed the Continental Divide three times while traveling around the park. The Continental Divide is an imaginary line along high-elevation points running north to south on the North American continent. All sources of runoff, all tributaries, and all rivers east of the Continental Divide eventually drain into the Atlantic Ocean, while those on the west of the Continental Divide drain into the Pacific Ocean.

Grand Prismatic Spring

Grand Prismatic Spring

Fountain Paint Pot

Clasydra Geyser

Beryl Spring

Geysers, Hot Springs, and Fumaroles, Oh My!

Norris Geyser Basin

Golden Gate Pass

Mammoth Hot Springs

Mammoth Hot Springs

Mammoth Hot Springs

Mammoth Hot Springs

Yellowstone River Rapids

Yellowstone Upper Falls

Yellowstone River Valley

Grassy Turf

Sunrise at Yellowstone Lake