Yellowstone, Part Three: Deadly Beauty

For the last two months we’ve borne witness to the power of water to erode. It has carved canyons, whittled towers, and exposed millions of years of Earth’s history. At Yellowstone, water partners up with volcanic ash and limestone to build remarkably beautiful and alien structures.

Same source, different results
Remember that huge pool of magma that sits six miles beneath the ground here? Can you imagine what happens when water comes into contact with that magma? If not, scientists have already come to your aid! They’ve measured underground water temperatures in Yellowstone at as high as 400° F / 204° C.

All that superheated water rises back up to the surface through cracks and fissures in the rock above it. If the water has a big enough pathway, it will rise more slowly and create a spring. If the path of escape is narrow, we get a geyser.

In either case, the superheated water churns up the minerals it comes into contact with and slowly redeposits them on the surface.

mammoth hotsprings
The travertine terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs. Water and heat dissolve limestone underground and then redeposit it on the surface. Two tons of mineral are redeposited every day, resulting in about an inch of growth a day (or roughly six feet a year) across the breadth of the formation. Your only option is to be amazed. Photo by Ryan.
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Sapphire Pool in Biscuit Basin. This water is 200° F / 93° C when it’s calm. When underground conditions are right, it will boil rapidly. Do not go for a swim in here. Photo by Tricia.
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Old Faithful as seen from the visitor’s center. Photo by Tricia.
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Old Faithful as seen from the boardwalk a few hundred feet away from the visitor’s center. A better view, no? Photo by Tricia.

The Beehive Geyser (video above) will erupt only twice a day. When it does, it shoots a column of boiling water 150-200 feet (46-61 m) into the air in an eruption that will last for five minutes. It is unclear how many gallons of water are involved here, but Old Faithful, which sits just a few hundred feet away, dispenses between 3,700-8,400 gallons of water depending on the length of the eruption, with the longer being 4.5 minutes.

By the way, you can stand on a boardwalk half way between Old Faithful and Beehive. We were lucky enough to be there when both were erupting at the same time.

Know the path, walk the path
Please be warned: these features are as deadly as they are beautiful. The water is at or just below boiling, and it’s often acidic. The colors in the hot springs are huge colonies of bacteria, each suited to a particular temperature of the water. They are called thermophiles and extremeophiles – organisms that love hot and extreme environments. When we talk about extreme environments, we’re talking about arsenic and sulfur.

The largest hot spring in the U.S., the Grand Prismatic Spring. The temperature at the center of the pool is around 189° F / 87° C, too hot for most life to get a foothold, so it’s a crystal clear blue color. As we move outwards, the water cools, and becomes habitable to various kinds of bacteria. Learn more about them here. Photo by Ryan.

Listen: Just because we slapped a named on a place and built a bunch of visitor’s centers around it doesn’t mean that we’ve conquered the land. The boardwalks are there to bring you as close as possible to these incredible features without harming you. The boardwalks rarely have guardrails.

It’s enticing to wander off, and earlier this summer a man and his sister did just that. They walked 225 yards off the boardwalk. Maybe they’d done it before and were fine. Maybe they were just young and feeling immortal. It didn’t turn out well, though. The young man – Colin Scott – slipped and fell into one of the hot springs. His sister ran back to get help, but park officials gave up the search quickly, calling it “futile.” Between the heat of the water and the acidity of the pool…uh, yeah. There’s nothing left of Colin to recover.

Update: Colin actually fell into a drill hole, according to the latest news report. The hole was 1087 feet deep and 459° F / 237° C. 

Do you remember that cheesy line from The Matrix? “There is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.” I don’t care how many martial arts classes you’ve taken, when you’re at Yellowstone knowing the path and walking the path are the same damn thing. Got it?


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