In 2008 and 2009 our Web Video Team connected video cameras to the live webcam stream in order to bring some live online ranger programs to our webcam audience. We've made several of those programs available in this archive.
Live Talk Archive Historic Structures of the Upper Geyser Basin by Park Ranger George Heinz Presented Live Online Aug. 13, 2009
Park Ranger George Heinz: We are coming to you live here from the Upper Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park. We’re right across the river from Old Faithful Geyser and the Old Faithful Inn and we’re going to start a program here in just a couple of minutes on the historic structures of the Upper Geyser Basin. Before we get started we are going to let our camera man do a little 360 and just give you an idea of where we are standing. So, stay tuned and we’ll be back with you in a couple of minutes.
You’re getting a view of Castle Geyser down there; it’s in the steam phase. You’re going to see the Lower General Store that we’re going to talk about. You’re coming around to the Old Faithful Inn, one of the treasures of our National Park System. The white roofed building there, that’s a new visitor center that we will be talking about here in a little bit. You can see that the crowds are starting to develop there. Old Faithful is starting to play a little. So, we might even get an eruption; Old Faithful is predicted to go at 11:02 plus or minus 10 minutes. But, it’s been pre-playing here quite awhile. That’s the Old Faithful Lodge there; you can see the brown roof. We’re back over here to Geyser Hill. Geyser Hill has about 40 geysers, the highest concentration of geysers in the world. We’re coming around; I hope you are watching mom.
Hi everybody, my name is Park Ranger George Heinz, and I’m a ranger here in Yellowstone National Park. I’d like to welcome everybody to the Upper Geyser Basin. This is an incredible place where I’m standing. It’s a little windy today with temperatures probably in the lower 60s, some puffy clouds, but mostly a blue sky. It’s a great day here in the Upper Geyser Basin.
When Yellowstone became the world’s first National Park on March 1st, 1872 by an act of Congress, Ulysses S Grant was the president in those days and the park was set aside for its thermal features basically; for the unique geology here.
But today, if we were looking at Yellowstone, and we were trying to decide if this place was worthy of being a park, it’s probably worthy of many little parks. You have over 10,000 thermal features, 300 geysers, and that’s about half of the geysers in the world are here in Yellowstone. You have the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River. You have the largest lake above 7,000 feet in North America. There’s all kinds of reasons why Yellowstone is worthy of being a big park. But, again, originally it was because of the thermal features.
But, sometimes when a park develops, and especially when it develops early on like Yellowstone did, over the years a cultural history starts to develop. Today the cultural history of Yellowstone, of the buildings and of the people that have been here is almost as important as that natural history. If we take a look at some aspects of that cultural history, and start talking about the development here in the Upper Geyser Basin, and we look at some of the buildings that are gone today, and some of the buildings that are still standing, you can get sort of an idea of how important this place is today to our society and has been in the past.
In the 1870s, when Yellowstone, it was the only National Park in those days, Yosemite was a state park, and Hot Springs, Arkansas was a land of many uses, it was where we use the resources. Yellowstone was the first place really where we are going to protect the resources on a national level, for future generations. So, as a park ranger, my job is to help protect Yellowstone, and interpret Yellowstone, for today’s visitors, but also for the future generations, so for our kids and grandkids.
So, there were questions when they were trying to make-up all these rules. Who was going to build all these hotels? Where were those hotels going to be built? Where was the money going to come from? In the first few years of Yellowstone, there was no money being spent here by the government. I think it was about 6 years after Yellowstone became a park before the first money came along. That was in 1878 and it was about $10,000.
One way to attract people to get here, they had to have a way to get here, so it was very important, some of that early road building, and the first road got here to the Upper Geyser Basin in 1878, again 6 years after Yellowstone became a park. That road was built by the second superintendant of the park, his name was Norris, and his road came to the Upper Geyser Basin and it ended up right behind me, right on this little curve in the river. So if you look behind me, you’re seeing the Firehole River. The Upper Geyser Basin is the uppermost basin on this Firehole River.
The first little village, it was more like a little shanty town, developed on that flat area right above the river there. The first buildings, the first one was a little log cabin and it was built so that people could stay up here in the winter and could do some sketching so people could understand what this place was like in winter. And, there was a gentleman that lived there that was trying to find a route from the Upper Geyser Basin here over to Yellowstone Lake. They first built a little shack and then, if we look at this picture down here, the building that is on your left or my right, that was built prior to 1886. It was built to be an Assistant Superintendant house. The person that was in charge of this part of the park would have lived in that little house.
Eventually by 1886, there were all kinds of things happening. People were here in Yellowstone, and they were here for the nature, but they were not necessarily here to protect nature. They were cooking food in some of the hot springs; they were washing clothes in the hot springs. It was common practice to write your name in geyser cones and even to take some of the minerals and some of the rocks home with you.
In 1886, to help protect Yellowstone, the U.S. Cavalry came to the rescue. They first built Fort Sheridan up in the Mammoth Hot Springs area.
Let’s swing our camera around and take a look. We’ve got Old Faithful erupting, so we’ll talk about that for a second and we’ll get right back to the U.S. Cavalry. That’s a beautiful eruption of Old Faithful. Again, Old Faithful is a bimodal geyser; it has a short mode and a long mode. The difference is whether an eruption lasts longer than 2 ½ minutes. As soon as that eruption started, there would be some rangers in the visitor center that put a stop watch on it. They’re going to time the complete eruption. As long as it’s putting water out of the cone, even if it’s only put it out a couple of feet, they will be timing that. The highest burst of Old Faithful is usually in about the first minute and a half. An eruption averages about 135 feet tall. They’ve been recorded as high as 184 feet. Each eruption is different; it depends on which way the wind is coming from and how cold the air is. They’re all beautiful in their own way. You can see that this thing is already starting to go down. It’s anywhere from a 2 to 5 minute eruption and it can throw upwards of a bout 8,000 gallons up into the air.
Later this afternoon at 2 o’clock, we are going to be talking about the thermal features here in the Upper Geyser Basin and so we’ll give you some better ideas on how Old Faithful works, what makes it erupt and what made it the world’s most famous geyser. It’s just a beautiful thing to see. If you get a chance to come out here, get out here early in the day; it’s an incredible place.
So let’s get back to the U.S. Cavalry and their part here in Yellowstone. They took over the management of Yellowstone in 1886. They were under the command of Captain Moses Harris and he was considered the Superintendant of the park in those days. The U.S. Army took over this little shanty town that was here. The Assistant Superintendant house became a soldier outpost. If you can imagine, it’s 21 years after the Civil War and all of the sudden these soldiers found themselves out here, this was a pretty good duty station. Your job would have been to help protect Yellowstone; it would have been a great place to be a soldier in those days.
So, this little town was developing back here behind me. If we swing around and we look down here at what we call the Lower General Store today, that’s the oldest building still in use here in the Upper Geyser Basin. That was built in 1897. Originally it was just a white framed farm house looking building. Then in 1903, it was called a Klamer’s Store, excuse me, but in 1903, Robert Reamer, the young architect that later on would build the Old Faithful Inn, he was working here on the Old Faithful Inn and he redesigned the lower store. He added all the knotty-pine, all the fancy wood, and the little dormers that stick out there. You’ll notice that it looks a lot like what became known as parkitecture across our National Parks; they were rustic little buildings that were built to supply goods and services to the visitors. In 1915, the Klamer’s Store was sold to the Hamilton Company and the Hamilton Company ran concessions here in Yellowstone until 2002. Then it was taken over by a company called Delaware North and Delaware North runs that store today. You can always tell if somebody has been around here for a long time because when they talk about lunch, they say, “well let’s go down to the lower Ham’s Store,” even though today Hamilton is gone and it’s ran by Delaware North. It is an incredible building. That was 1897.
That same year, right on this side of where that store sits today, another little building was built; it was a Haynes Photo Shop. Frank Haynes was the father and he was the park’s official photographer and eventually his son Jack Haynes would take over. If you can imagine, before the people back east could travel here, how do you make Yellowstone known to the public? One way is through photographs and paintings. If we look at this photograph here, this is a lithograph that was hand painted eventually by Jack Haynes, the son, probably in the 1920s or 30s. This picture itself is of Morning Glory Pool, which sits about 1 mile behind me. It was one of the more popular and more famous hot springs here in Yellowstone because until 1972 the road went right by Morning Glory Pool. In’72 the road was moved farther away. These photographs by the Haynes family are pretty collectable today. You can find them in museums and antique stores. They show an incredible history of Yellowstone Park; it was a good way to document what was going on here.
That same time, toward the end of the 1800s, there really were no hotels here. There had been a little hotel that we will talk about in a minute, but most of the accommodations here were tent camps. There was a Shaw and Powell Camp up where the lodge sits today. Back behind me about a mile sat a camp called the Wylie Tent Camping Company and they had little tent camps, called permanent tent camps, all over the park. They had these canvas tents that had wooden floors. They were pretty fancy, with nice bedding, some nice furniture and then you would go down the way a little to eat in a dinning tent. People would be dressed to the hilt; they’d have their Sunday best clothes on. It was an incredible way to visit the park. It would be quite a few years until there was a really good hotel here in the Upper Geyser Basin; that would happen in the early part of the 1900s.
If we take a look at this picture, this is a picture of the Old Faithful Inn the year it opened and it opened in the spring of 1904. The construction started in 1903. They worked through the winter; it was easier to drag logs and rocks. They could drag them over the snow with horses a little easier in the winter than they could in the summer. A group of about 40 people, plus Robert Reamer, the architect worked on the Old Faithful Inn, an incredible building. If we swing around here, we get a look at what the Old Faithful Inn looks like today. It is just an amazing building. You can see the main house (Old House), it looks just like the picture I just showed you. The logs have aged a little. Originally when that opened there were about 150 rooms. You can see the flags up there; in the early days people could go up there and they could watch the basin from where those flags are. That has been closed since a big earthquake in 1959 out at Hebgen Lake, Montana. It’s an incredible building.
If you look off to the left of what is called the Old House today, you can see a wing sticking out toward the new visitor center; that’s called the East Wing and that was built in 1913. If you look off to the right of the building, there’s another even larger wing that sticks out this way. That’s called the West Wing and that was added in 1927; that added about another 150 rooms to the Old Faithful Inn. Today, they rent 329 rooms nightly in the Old Faithful Inn. It’s sold out every night; it’s only open about 6 months a year, but it is an incredible building. You’ll notice that the Old Faithfull Inn is facing us here on Geyser Hill; it is not facing Old Faithful Geyser like you might expect. That’s because Robert Reamer, the 27 year old architect that designed and built that building, designed it so that when you pulled up in front of the Inn in a stage coach, the first thing you saw, straight ahead, would be Old Faithful Geyser. Then, when you where leaving the Old Faithful Inn on a stage coach, the last thing you would see would be Old Faithful Geyser.
The inside is an open lobby; it’s about 85 feet tall. It has a couple of balconies. It is all full of historic furniture and you can sit on those balconies on the inside and look down on the lobby. There is a giant fireplace that has a big clock that was forged by a blacksmith right here on location in 1903. That clock has about a 20 foot tall pendulum that swings back and forth. About twenty years ago or so, I was sitting on one of those balconies with my big brother and he noticed, he is in to antique furniture and stuff, that when you step into the Old Faithful Inn, it’s almost like you have stepped back in time. But, that clock keeps ticking. Today, I don’t think that pendulum clicks like it used to, but in those days he said it was almost like you were back in 1904, but the clock reminds you that you’re not, because it keeps clicking.
So, we’ve got a little eruption of Lion Geyser. We’ll swing around and look at that real quick and then we’ll get back to a building that sat where the Old Faithful Inn sits, here in just a second. Lion Geyser, there’s actually 4 geysers in that group, Lion gets into a series it’s called. It is about 13 hours between initial eruptions, but then about every hour and 20 minutes or so, it has shorter smaller eruptions. This is the third eruption in the series. Sometimes it can have up to 7 of these smaller eruptions before it gets back and then it goes through that 13 hour interval or so. It is an unpredictable geyser. We know from statistics the average of when it goes, but were not able to predict it today. It is an incredible thing to watch.
Let’s look back to where the Old Faithful Inn sits. I started working there when I was 18 years old; I worked housekeeping. I drove the linen truck for the Old Faithful Inn. In those days, over in the West Wing, there was a laundry-shoot. It was a spiral shoot; there was a little bitty door you could open in the hallway. It was common practice for the housekeepers to jump in the laundry-shoot and take a ride down to the basement. They took that out some years ago and they replaced it with an elevator so they could help people get up to the top floors without using the steps.
The Old Faithful Inn is not the first building that sat there. In the 1880s, there was a building that sat there called the Shack. It was actually built in 1885. There was a bill called the Sundry Bill of 1883 that stated that no building in Yellowstone could be closer than ¼ of a mile to a geyser. The Shack was built in the days before the U.S. Cavalry and it was built in the wrong spot; it was actually built a little to close to Old Faithful. In 1894, the Hayes Act superseded that Sundry Bill and from that point on buildings could be as close as 1/8 of a mile to a geyser. So today, the Old Faithful Inn, which was built in 1903, 10 years after that change, sits exactly 1/8 of a mile from Old Faithful Geyser. If you ever get a chance, whether you are staying there or not, come here and check-out the Old Faithful Inn. I like to call it the Grand Old Lady of the Upper Geyser Basin. It is definitely one of the cultural treasures that we have in our country. If you want to stay there, you will need to make your reservations 6 months to a year in advance. It’s an incredible building.
Right after the Inn was popping-up, on the flat spot off to the right, in 1914, there was a guy named Henry Brothers that got permission to build a bathhouse and swimming pool out here on the flats. He built this swimming pool, and we actually have a picture of it here. He used the hot water from Solitary Pool and Solitary is up behind Geyser Hill where we are standing. They tapped into this hot spring and they ran that hot water through a pipe across the river and into this swimming pool. This is what the original pool looked like. We now know that they destroyed Solitary or at the least we changed it. Solitary was a hot spring, we dropped the water level in it when we tapped into it and it became a geyser because the water level was lower, the run-off channel was lower, the water was hotter and it became a geyser. Today, even though it has been a long time since the pool was here, Solitary is still erupting as a geyser; it erupts about every 4 minutes.
In 1934, Henry Brothers sold his bathhouse to the Hamilton Company, which ran the store down here. The Hamilton Company remodels that and they named it the Plunge. The Plunge was about a 5,000 square foot swimming pool. It sat in the flats right across the river from where we are. There was a 25 foot tall lifeguard stand in there. The lifeguard had a Tarzan rope. He could swing out, or she could swing out on that rope and help people that might be in danger across the pool. By the late 1940s, there were some questions, both about using the resources here in Yellowstone and about the health of the water and what was happening to that water that might have chlorine in it. Every fall when they drained that pool, they were afraid that water was getting into the Firehole River. In 1949 the swimming pool was closed. It took a couple of years, but by the early 1950s, this building was completely gone.
It was sort of a different era. In the early days of Yellowstone, people were here for nature, but like I talked about, they were not here to protect nature, but maybe to use nature. They would cook food in the hot springs, do some laundry in the hot springs, but by the middle part of the century people were looking at Yellowstone as a resort type of area. There were dance halls that were popping up around the park. People wanted to go horseback riding. So they were here to use it more as a resort type of vacation more than as a vacation where they come and visit the natural resources like we do today. So, there have been a couple of big philosophy changes over the years on how we looked at Yellowstone, on how we managed Yellowstone and on why people have come here.
Sorry, I’ve got to look at my pictures.
There were other changes happening. If we swing back around here we can look at the Old Faithful Lodge. That building first started popping up in about 1916. Originally there was a Shaw and Powell Camping Company tent camp there. In 1916, the Wylie Camp we have talked about and the Shaw and Powell Camp combined and they became the Yellowstone Park Camping Company. It took about 12 years to build that little community there I call it, the Lodge. One reason those lodges started to pop-up in1916, was because that was the first year that automobiles were really let into the park on a complete basis. 1915 had a few automobiles, but by 1916 automobiles were replacing stagecoaches and so a new visitor was coming. The early visitors were the wealthy, the educated, and the people that could afford to stay in these big hotels. So, you didn’t have to got he Wylie Way, you could go the hotel way. By 1916, when people were visiting in their new automobiles we needed new places for them to stay. These lodges were built around the park, but there were not rooms in the lodges. The lodges rented cabins. They were called housekeeping cabins and they had maid service and stuff like that. They were fairly rustic; they had wood burning stoves and you did have running water in those cabins and some heat.
Probably the most important thing that happened in 1916 was the formation of the National Park Service. On August 25, 1916, the National Park Service was formed. It took about 2 years to completely take over the management of the park. The U.S. Cavalry actually left in 1918; there was a little lay over year there. If you notice what we wear as a park ranger, this is called a flat-hat basically or a campaign-hat you may hear them called. But, if you look back at what the U.S. Cavalry wore in the 1910s, they wore hats a lot like this. When the Park Service was formed, our hat was designed in recognition of the job the Army did managing our National Parks until the National Park Service was formed. We still wear our hats today so we can thank the U.S. Army for managing and protecting Yellowstone during their stay here.
So, we have these lodges popping-up and people are here for a different reason, their dancing and their wanting to do stuff. One of the popular activities was feeding bears. One of the questions we still get is, “where are the bears,” here in Yellowstone. We still get asked that all day as a ranger. The north end of the park is better bear habitat if you are wondering. This is a photograph of a bear-feeding ground that was here in the Upper geyser Basin. It opened in1919. These big hotels, every night after dinner, they would take the all the dinner scraps and they would go out, and rangers would pour those scraps on a big platform and bears could jump-up and eat that garbage. There was one ranger that became fairly famous here, his name was ranger Martindale. He would sit on a horse and watch the bears eat garbage. There was a fence that would keep the bears away from the tourists. The guest would sit on these benches and Ranger Martindale would talk about the natural history of the bears; it became known as the, “sermon on a mount.” We fed bears here in Yellowstone at our dumps until 1936 when all the dumps were closed except the one at Otter Creek, which is up near Canyon Village about 52 miles from here; That one was closed within a few years. We no longer feed any of the animals in Yellowstone. Yellowstone is left as a natural place; fires are able to burn if they are in the wilderness. We let nature take its course as much as humanly possible here in Yellowstone.
If we swing back around here and we can take a look at what is being built over there. That is going to be the new Old Faithful Visitor and Education Center. That’s due to open-up on August 25, 2010, which is the anniversary of the formation of the National Park Service. It’s going to be an incredible building, but it’s not the first building that sat on that spot. It is actually the third visitor center that has sat on that spot. The first one was built in 1929 by an architect named Herbert Maier. Herbert Maier built some buildings here in Yellowstone; he built this museum here, he built one at Fishing Bridge here in the park, he built one at Norris Geyser Basin and he built one at Madison Junction. The one he built here was called the Museum of Thermal Activity. It was just a little log structure; it had a little courtyard out back that actually had a little pond they built in the courtyard so people could go out and hear the rangers talk about the wetlands here in the park. That building was replaced in 1972 by a visitor center that is being replaced today. The reason that the original Museum of Thermal Activity was replaced in the early 1970s was because of a program that the Park Service developed in 1956 that was called Mission 66. During World War II, our government was not spending very much money in our National Parks; all the buildings were deteriorating. In 1956, they started a 10 year program to upgrade our National Parks and clean-up and fix-up the buildings we had let go for way too long. The Mission 66 plan here was to remove all the hotels from the Upper Geyser Basin here. Take away all the cabins; the Old faithful Inn would loose its wings and the Old House would become a museum. The Lodge would probably stay as a cafeteria, but nobody would be able to stay here in the Upper Geyser basin anymore. That really never came to fruition.
Today, we are glad that never happened, because we like coming here and staying in the Upper Geyser Basin. If you ever get a chance, this place early in the day, late in the day, is as magical as anyplace on our planet. I hear people say all the time that, “that place is too crowded there at the Upper Geyser Basin, but it really is only crowed in the afternoon. If you get out here at sun-up, you might be one of the only out here in the geyser basin.
This place is magical; it is the reason why Yellowstone became the world’s first National Park. About ¼ of all the geysers in the world are within walking distance from where I’m standing. This is a special place, so if you get a chance. The cultural history of a place develops and we are still developing it here in Yellowstone. It is really because of the people; it’s because of the soldiers, it’s because of the people that worked in the Old Faithful Inn, it’s because all the rangers that came before us. You might be sitting back home watching, but you have a chance to become part of the cultural history here in Yellowstone. You just have to start visiting. You just have to develop a relationship with this place. As humans we are more apt to protect a place that we develop a relationship with. So, pack your car, make your reservations and come out to Yellowstone. If you can’t come here, we have nearly 400 units in our National Park System. Make a trip. Start developing a relationship with one of these places. Your life will be better for it.
Stay tuned, because at 2 o’clock we will be talking about the thermal features here in the Upper Geyser Basin. Thanks for joining me, by mom and I love ya. Thank you very much.
Thermal Features and the Upper Geyser Basin by George Heinz Presented Live Aug. 13, 2009
Park Ranger George Heinz: Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, we’ve got a live program starting here from Geyser Hill in Yellowstone National Park here in just a couple of minutes. We’re across the river from the Old Faithful Geyser and the Old Faithful Inn. We are going to let our camera do a little swing around the basin just to give you an idea of where we are standing and we’ll be back with you in just a minute or two. So, stay tuned.
You can see, we’re right next to the Lion Group over here on Geyser Hill. There are about 40 geysers on this hill. We will get more in to those particular things here in just a bit. You see a little of the Firehole River here. Then, that’s Castle Geyser out there, maybe the oldest geyser in the park. You get a little view of the lower store; that’s the oldest building still in use here, 1897. You get a little view of the Old Faithful Inn; it’s been open and operating since 1904. There’s a shot of our new visitor center that’s going to open next year. You’ve got Old Faithful Geyser and you can see the people waiting. The Old Faithful Lodge and then we’re swinging back around and the camera is showing you Geyser Hill again. So, stay tuned.
Welcome to our program, my name is Ranger George Heinz and I’m a ranger here in Yellowstone National Park. It’s just a pleasure; it’s a great day here. It’s sort of windy, maybe in the upper 60s or lower 70s, and it’s just a beautiful day in Yellowstone. So, I know a lot of you all are wishing you were out here watching these geysers. But, this is an amazing place and I hope you get to visit soon.
When Yellowstone became the world’s first National Park on March 1st, 1872, it was by an act of Congress, Ulysses S. Grant was President. The park is about 2.2 million acres or 3472 square miles in size today. That’s about the size of Rhode Island and Delaware put together or 2/3rd the size of the state of Connecticut. This is a great-big place. Yellowstone was first set aside because of the geology, because of these thermal features.
As a ranger, when you are working here, we often get asked, “why do you have geysers here?” “Why are there hot springs here? Why do you have them and I don’t have them in my back yard?
I usually try to answer that question by giving that person another question. I ask them, “Well, what is Yellowstone?”
The answer to that is, it’s a volcano. And, Yellowstone is just not just any volcano, it’s one of the world’s largest volcanoes, we believe. But, it’s different than most of the volcanoes you find, at least in the continental United States. So, if you know a little about the geography of the U.S. and I ask you, “Where do you find most of the volcanoes?
You would probably tell me the west coast. Those volcanoes were formed a little differently than the Yellowstone volcano. We think our volcano formed more like the Hawaiian chain of volcanoes. Up and down the west coast, you have the ocean floor, which is made-up of extrusive igneous rock, basically basalt on the Pacific Ocean floor.
The continent, you know, the North American continent is made-up of intrusive igneous rock, basically granite. And granite cools very slowly, over 10s of thousands of years. It can form impurities, so it’s lighter than that extrusive igneous rock. You have the heavy ocean floor and the lighter continent banging in to each other all up and down the west coast. Well, that heavy ocean floor gets subducted below the continent and that’s called a subduction zone. That’s where you find most of the volcanoes in our country. You have Mount Rainier, Mount Hood, Mount Shasta, Mount Saint Helens and Mount Lassen, there’s a whole list, probably 50 or so active volcanoes in North America. Yellowstone is just one of them and it’s a big one.
If we look at why Yellowstone was formed, I’m going to pull out this diagram here. We call this the hot-spot track. Over here on this far end, you far left end, is the west coast of our country. This is Oregon and this is Nevada. About 16 million years ago, we believe that the hot-spot that is forming the Yellowstone volcano was below that part of our country. So, we have maybe a hundred calderas between here and the west coast. This orange dot is just showing you a few of those. Just looking at this diagram, you would assume that the hot-spot was moving, the hot-spot is not moving; the continent is moving. North America flows at an inch or two a year in a southwest direction. The continent has flowed over this hot-spot.
Today, we believe that the hot-spot is below Yellowstone. We’ve had 3 great-big eruptions here that formed calderas and some smaller calderas as well. This red circle here, sort of an oblong deal, but it represents an eruption that happened about 2.1 million years ago. That eruption was about 6,000 times bigger than the eruption of Mount Saint Helens back in 1980. And then, we had an eruption a little bit smaller about 1.2 million years ago. And then, this larger yellow dot is what we consider today’s Yellowstone caldera. That eruption happened about 640,000 years ago. What happens with a caldera is, it bubbles-up and little cracks and fissures form in the side and lava starts to pour out and eventually that floor of that caldera sinks. So, it’s basically a sunken volcanic crater. If we pull out a map of Yellowstone; this is the map you would get at the gate when you visit the park. We’ve outlined the caldera. The caldera is about 30 by 45 miles across. This is a great-big crater. We get people that ask all the time, “I’ve spent the last few days driving around Yellowstone and I see the thermal features, I see the steam, but where is the volcanic crater?
That’s because lava flows continued and lava filled-in much of that caldera. The last lava to flow out onto Yellowstone’s surface was about 70,000 years ago and it was on an area called the Pitchstone Plateau. We’ve had some other steam explosions here about 180,000 years ago and the West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake was formed. Basically, that’s why we have thermal features; we’re on a giant volcano.
I’ve just been informed that Beehive Geyser’s indicator is going, so we’ll keep an eye on it. It’s one of the larger geysers in the world. It only erupts once or twice a day. So, we’ll keep an eye on it; it has a little geyser that starts erupting about 10 or 15 minutes before the big eruption. We’ll keep an eye on it and you’ll definitely get to this, because we’ll still be talking. When it starts going, we’ll just shift the camera that way. Stay tuned for an eruption of Beehive.
I’ll just bend over here for a second. What’s left here, since this is a volcano, after all the eruptions and the lava flows are 4 different types of thermal features. We have hot springs, geysers, mudpots and fumaroles. Some of them you can find all over, you can find hot springs all over as you drive around the west. You’ll see Lava Hot Springs, Chico Hot Springs and Fairmont Hot Springs; there not rare, but some of these features are pretty rare.
One of the rarest is a mudpot. This is a picture of the Fountain Paint Pot, down in the Lower Geyser Basin. One way mudpots can be formed is if you have a hot spring that doesn’t have a runoff channel, there’s really no where for that water to go once it gets to the surface, except to evaporate. There is some little heat loving chemotrophic microorganisms that live in that acidic water. They live off of hydrogen sulfide and they convert that hydrogen sulfide into sulfuric acid and the acidic water starts to eat away at the edge of the pool and can turn it into mud. Now, in the spring these things a pretty wet and bubbly. They change throughout the year as the water table drops. This is a picture of just a couple of little bubbles and they’ll throw mud; they can throw mud pretty far really. It’s an incredible thing to see. These things are not necessarily boiling. Up in the Mud Volcano area, some of them have a PH of 1, which is about like battery acid. A lot of them are in the 180 degree range, not necessarily boiling; water boils at 199 at this elevation.
Another type of feature that, at least in the summer you notice a bunch as your looking around the basin, is a fumarole. A fumarole is really just a steam vent. When ever the water is not near the surface and that water is turning to steam by dripping on hot rocks, it just shoots to the surface. So if you are able to watch our webcam in the winter, the spring or the fall, you’ll notice that there are a lot more little steam pockets coming up around the Upper Geyser Basin here than you would find today, when it’s a hot warm day; we just don’t see the steam coming out of the smaller features. Mudpots can also be formed by fumaroles and this is a fumarole that is just under high pressure, just to give you an idea what some of them look like. On the west side of the park, we have a feature called Roaring Mountain. Stagecoach passengers used to say you could hear Roaring Mountain roar from over a mile away. So, acidic fumaroles can also cause mudpots. It’s just a phase, one of the 4 phases of our hot springs.
Let me get rid of this guy here. We’ve talked about mudpots and we’ve talked about fumaroles. Right here next to me is one of the prettier hot springs in the park. This is the most abundant feature we have you can find them all over. They are just beautiful pools where the water is pretty much able to cycle and come to the surface at will.
We get a lot of questions about these hot springs and a lot of those have to do with colors. So, people ask us, “Why does that hot spring look blue?
The blue is just really a trick to our eyes. The sun sends the Earth shortwave radiation and when that shortwave radiation hits our atmosphere, blue light is at one end of the visible spectrum, red lights at the other; blue light scatters more easily than the other types of light. That’s the reason the sky looks blue, it’s the reason the ocean looks blue and it’s the reason a hot spring looks blue. It’s just the blue light is scattering; all the other shades of light are being absorbed down into that pool.
We get questions about the oranges and the browns you see around the hot springs. This stuff is alive. Right here in the Upper Geyser Basin, most of this stuff is considered cyanobacteria. It’s a heat loving microorganism or communities of microorganisms that live at different temperature ranges. The lighter the color of the bacteria, the closer to 167 degrees F; it can give you a way of judging how hot these pools are. We can look at that runoff channel right there and we can see that there is no color in the center of the runoff channel. Then as you move away from the heat source, the bacteria starts. So we can come up with an educated guess that this pool, because it has no bacteria in it, is hotter than 167. That little pool there has bacteria all the way in it; it’s cooler than 167. These bacteria communities can give you an idea, or at least help you come up with an idea, on how hot some of this water is.
We started protecting Yellowstone on March 1st, 1872 and Yellowstone has started to pay us back a little. Back in 1966, there was a professor from the University of Wisconsin- Madison that was out here. His name was Dr. Thomas Brock. Dr Brock identified a thermophile, a little heat loving microorganism that became known as thermus aquaticus or TAQ. TAQ led to the polymerase chain reaction or PCR is what a scientist would say. PCR is what led to DNA finger printing. We knew about DNA, but the process of duplicating a persons DNA is a heat process. Until these heat loving microorganisms where identified it was hard to duplicate DNA on a big enough scale so a scientist or a doctor could read it. So really, DNA finger printing was made possible because we’ve protected Yellowstone since 1872. It’s a pretty cool deal; we believe we’ve only identified about 1% of the microorganisms that live in the thermal areas here in Yellowstone.
We’ve gone through the first 3 types, so lets talk a little about geysers. I’m going to pull this diagram up of the inside of Old Faithful Geyser to start with. This is the surface right here, and this is going to be pretty cool, because we are going to get an eruption of Beehive about half way through this. What happens is, over the year’s rain and snow percolates down through cracks and fissures in the earth and anywhere from 2 to 8 miles below us, there’s liquid rock. This water gets heated and we know that heat wants to rise, so convection currents start.
We’ve got Old Faithful preplaying over there as well, so we might even get a dually coming up, 2 big geysers at once. It’s pretty cool. So this water gets heated and it starts to come back toward the surface. As it comes toward the surface, it’s moving away from the heat source and it’s traveling through rhyolite rock. Rhyolite is rich in silica and so this silica rich solution is moving toward the surface, it’s getting farther from the heat source and that mineral starts to precipitate out of the solution and it coats the inside of the plumbing system. Overtime, a constriction can form. We know that in Old Faithful, 22 feet down, there is a tight spot and it’s just a little over 4 inches wide. We stuck a little camera 50 feet down Old Faithful’s cone some years back. We know that that is where the constriction is in Old Faithful. All geysers have to have a constriction; they have to be boiling at the surface, so it’s a pretty cool thing.
We will show you what this rock is; hold on I’m going to grab my rock. This is geyserite or siliceous sinter. It’s just a silica deposit. As the thermal water evaporates or runs off, this mineral precipitates back out of solution. You call tell that this rock, since it has little beads like that, this rock was formed around a geyser. As the geyser erupted, the water laded on the ground, as the water runs off, that mineral precipitates back out. This stuff grows real slowly, at millimeters a year; this might have taken hundreds of years to build a rock this thick. This rock belongs to the Old Faithful Visitor Center, I borrowed it and I will put it back in a box there. It’s very important that when you visit Yellowstone, we are protecting this place for future generations, you don’t take the rocks, and you don’t pick the flowers; you leave everything you find here for the next visitor. That’s pretty important. We you visit, you can check out the rocks, but don’t pick them up and don’t take them with you.
If we get back to our cross-section, we are still getting close; this is going to be neat.
So, here we go, let’s turn around. Beehive is about to start. I’ll just continue to talk here a little, we’ll tell you about Beehive. The highest recorded eruption of Beehive is about 218 feet. The highest recorded of Old Faithful is 184. You can see Old Faithful steaming, just past Beehive and it’s actually across the river. We are going to see 2 big geysers here in just a couple of minutes from Geyser Hill here. This is pretty cool. Beehive is on about a 14 to 30 hour interval. Here lately it has been going about twice a day. We usually see it once during daylight hours and then it goes once during the middle of the night. Sometimes there are some GOSA people, Geyser Observation and Study Association, they will be out here watching it, so we actually get pretty good times on Beehive even if it erupts in the middle of the night. These people come here on their vacations and a lot of time, they know more about the individual features than us rangers know.
So, you’ve got Beehive Geyser started right at 2:15. This is a pretty cool geyser, it’s a little windy, but it can have burst over 200 feet and it’s under extreme high pressure. One cool thing about Beehive is, you get to stand really, really close. You are almost a football field away from Old Faithful and if you look through the steam, you can see Old Faithful’s doing a little preplaying, which is actually what is going to cause it to erupt. If you can look through that steam spray, you can see Old Faithful spitting, that’s what makes it erupt. Every time it throws a little water out before an eruption, it drops the pressure. It throws a little more out, it drops the pressure. When you start dropping the pressure, you are dropping the boiling point and eventually these super heated pockets of water, that are down below Yellowstone, I mean Old Faithful’s constriction, are able to boil. When water starts to boil and turn into steam, it expands about 1500 times. That steam pocket rushes to the surface. It’s the only way it has to go, straight-up; it’s a steam pocket trying to get out of the ground and it throws all the water above it out of its way. That’s a pretty cool geyser you are seeing right there. A lot of people don’t get to see that; again it only goes about 2 once or twice a day. Some years, I remember 20 years ago or so, there were some summers when they were actually predicting Beehive. It was getting so regular that they would actually predict it at a plus or minus a 2 or 3 hour interval. So, they would give you a 6 hour window. It has been predictable at times. It’s pretty neat; we are hoping that Old Faithful goes while this thing is still going; we’d call that a dually if does. It’s just a pretty neat thing to see. This thing is going under extreme high pressure; you can already see it’s getting shorter; the tallest part of the eruption is probably over.
All the people are sitting there waiting for Old Faithful to go off and there wondering why aren’t we over there watching Beehive. If Beehive went 15 to 20 times a day, like Old Faithful, it might be the most famous geyser in the world, instead of Old Faithful.
Old Faithful sits across the river, by itself. It’s on that big mound; we don’t believe any other geysers have the ability to steal Old Faithful’s juice. Just by watching the statistics over the years, we’ve figured out we can predict some of these geysers. It’s really just an average that we give you. We say, “Over the last 70 years, it’s average this.” For Old Faithful, it’s about every 90 minutes. For Beehive, it’s about every 14 hours. I don’t know if you can hear that through my microphone, but that thing is under real high pressure.
So, if you have any doubts about visiting Yellowstone, these geysers should be giving you some sort of idea. This is a really, really, really special place. All together we have about 400 units in our National Park System and they are all special for different reasons. Some are special for their history, some of them for their culture, some of them for their fantastic seashores and their fantastic cave systems. Yellowstone is fantastic on a large scale for a bunch of different reasons; the geology, the cultural history, the rivers and the lakes; this is an amazing place.
I’m just going to finish up. We went through how these things work. It’s basically just a giant steam pocket coming to the surface. Here in the Upper Geyser Basin, we have about 150 geysers. That’s about 1/4th of all the geysers in the world. So, I’m going to say good-bye to everybody. I hope my mom and dad got to watch; I love you all in Louisville, Kentucky. Thanks for watching, we’ll see you again next summer. We’ll just leave this camera on these geysers and let you watch what happens.
Live Talk Archive Personalities and Myths of Local Geysers by Park Ranger George Heinz Presented Live Online in September 2008
Park Ranger George Heinz: I’m gonna do a program right now. Just to tell you what we’re doing, I work in the park’s Web Office, and if you just joined us, I’m going live out over the Internet. We have a camera up here on this tree, it’s our Old Faithful live webcam and it’s watching me. I have a microphone on here somewhere. So this is going around the world. There are people in Europe watching, my parents in Kentucky, my nephew in Ohio, Ben. It’s a pretty neat thing. This is the last time we’re going to do this, this year. If you do go home and you watch the Old Faithful Webcam just look and we’ll put up a notice if we get a chance to do this again. So just watch that webcam periodically and we’ll put up some stuff. That will give you a chance to see some next time we do it.
My name is George Heinz. Again welcome from around the world. It’s a strange thing here knowing people are watching.
We just got done talking about why we have geysers and how they work. I really believe that some of the individual geysers here in this basin have a personality. I really want to talk about the geysers that can be seen from this webcam because there are people that are volunteers, one in Connecticut – the main two – one’s in Connecticut and one’s in England actually, and they have the password and the software to run this camera. We have volunteers that sit there and they do whatever work that they’re doing but they have Old Faithful there on the side and when a geyser on Geyser Hill or Old Faithful starts erupting, they can take this camera and zoom in on an eruption. So people all over the world can see some of these geysers.
If you didn’t see our first talk, Old Faithful is our most famous geyser but it’s not the biggest in this basin. There are about 150 geysers in the Upper Geyser Basin. Old Faithful is the most famous of those geysers. Giant Geyser which is further down the basin is probably the biggest. It has been fairly regular in the last couple of years. Not nearly regular where you could predict it but it has been going off quite a few times a year.
Then you have Grand Geyser which is right over the trees, sort of in that direction. It is a predictable geyser. It goes about twice a day. They’ll have a prediction of that in the visitor center.
Then you have Beehive Geyser which went at about 5 something this morning, right before sunup. It’s right across the river behind Old Faithful, sort of behind where I’m at. It’s a big old geyser.
Giantess, we’ll talk about her in just a few minutes. She’s over on Geyser Hill.
On Geyser Hill, which is where the people are walking, you see them on this hill back behind me. That’s on the other side of the Firehole River from where we are. Geyser Hill has about 40 geysers. If we took away Old Faithful, we took away all those other geysers down the basin that way, and you took away the Middle Geyser Basin – Midway – the Lower Geyser Basin, the Norris Geyser Basin, the West Thumb Geyser Basin, the Heart Lake Geyser Basin, the Shoshone Geyser Basin, if you took away all those geysers, Geyser Hill would still be the biggest geyser basin in the world. It’s 40 geysers on that hill. So it’s pretty amazing really.
I believe those geysers have a personality. If you see right over in this direction, you see a mound before you get to the trees, and earlier I saw it spittin’ a little, that is called the Lion Group. It’s sort of the protector of the hill. Lion is a different geyser. Like Old Faithful it’s a cone geyser, shooting out of a geyserite cone – a silica-based cone. Those tend to be more pressurized. They go straight up in the air. Lion goes into a series, it’s called. If it’s been about 6 or 8 hours since Lion has erupted and it starts erupting, that’s the first eruption in a series. The first eruption will last about 7 minutes. It might be about 90 feet tall. Then at the end of that 7 minutes it will go into a little steam phase where it shoots high-pressure steam up. Then, if it’s going to be a series and not just one individual eruption, about an hour and a half after that initial it will have a shorter, smaller eruption. About an hour to an hour and a half later and it might be 50 feet tall and it only lasts 4 or 5 minutes. Then maybe in another hour and a half it’ll have another smaller one. Then it will go through its interval again of 6 or 8 hours before the next initial and maybe the next series. So it’s up there protecting the hill.
There are actually 4 geysers there in the lion group. That’s one of the areas where they can take the function of each other. They can switch – a transference of function. If these 2 become active, these 2 aren’t. If these 2 are active, these 2 aren’t.
Probably the most popular geyser on the hill over there is called Beehive. Beehive went at 5 something this morning. It goes about once a day. It could possibly go before dark again this afternoon. So if you’re in the basin keep an eye out for Beehive. Probably the most impressive geyser, my favorite anyway, in the basin. About once a day, Beehive goes up to about 218 feet. It’s under high pressure but Beehive gives us a warning if it is going to erupt. Like Old Faithful spits a little, to relieve the pressure, Beehive has another geyser next to it called the Beehive Indicator. The Beehive Indicator will start erupting. It’s about a 10 to 15 foot eruption about 10 to 20 to 25 minutes before Beehive. So this little bitty geyser starts erupting and everybody that lives around here or comes here to study the geysers, they get on their little radios and say, “The Beehive Indicator is going”. So everybody will go over there to try to see Beehive. You can actually stand almost right next to it. It’s an amazing thing. If you ever get a chance to be on Geyser Hill when Beehive is erupting, boy it’ll change your world. If Beehive went as often as Old Faithful, we wouldn’t even know about Old Faithful because it would be the most famous geyser in the world.
Then you have another small geyser that I like to call the teenager of the hill. It’s really straight behind me down near the river, or just up on the flats above the river, and it’s called Plume. Plume is a teenager because it is a relatively new geyser. In 1922 a little steam explosion formed a crack on the hill and a new geyser started. Plume throughout my time here, some summers it doesn’t go at all, some summers it’s every hour, every 20 minutes, every 30 minutes. I think it’s about every 30 minutes now. It’s a new geyser, started again in 1922 when it was about 40 or 50 feet tall and it was shaped like the plume of a feather. In 1972 another little steam explosion changed it again. It doesn’t erupt as tall now, maybe 20 or 25 feet. It’s also a trickster because when it does its initial burst you’ll turn around and say, “Hey look, it’s a geyser” and by the time the person you just told that looks at it, it’s stopped. It just goes that quick. But if you wait a second it will go again. It does a couple bursts about every 30 minutes. It’s a pretty cool little geyser and you can also stand pretty close to it when it erupts.
The grand old lady of the hill is where the steam is at the top of the mound, right before the trees, directly behind me. That is Giantess. Giantess is different than these other geyser we’ve been talking about . Giantess is a fountain geyser. Old Faithful, Beehive, Lion - they’re all cone geysers. Fountain geysers erupt out of a pool of water. Instead of spitting like Old Faithful does to drop the pressure, those pools start to overflow. That drops the pressure and lets the geyser erupt. Giantess erupted last, I think on April 8th or May 8th, somewhere early summer. It’s only gone once I believe this year. Maybe twice, I think it went over the winter. I’m not sure exactly when that was. It usually goes a couple times a year. It’s a massive geyser. Since it’s a fountain geyser, all that water is not directed out of a cone straight up. It can shoot at many different angles. It’s a burst this way, a burst that way. It’s pretty impressive. It also shows up as an earthquake on the USGS. The first time I saw Giantess erupt I was in the Old Faithful Inn there about 29 – 28 years ago and it shook the building. It’s a massive geyser and you can feel the ground around here shakin’. It’s the only geyser here that can register on the Richter Scale as an earthquake.
Again there are 40 geysers over here. The most famous geyser is on this side and that’s Old Faithful. Old Faithful goes somewhere around 18 times a day maybe. Some of the myths – I get asked all the time, people come up to me and they say “When I was here when I was a kid, Old Faithful was a lot bigger”. No, when you were a kid, you were smaller.
Old Faithful is doing about what it’s always been doing. To be fair, if you came here back 50 or 40 years ago, the sidewalk that’s over there was the main road. So you would have driven right through the geyser basin, passed Morning Glory Pool, passed Castle Geyser, and you would have pulled up in between the inn and where we are and you would have parked out here. You were able to go a little closer to Old Faithful. If you get a chance, watch Old Faithful from a distance, over on Geyser Hill or down basin. It’s a much more impressive geyser when you see it from a distance. It’s a big geyser. Old Faithful has registered as high as 184 feet. An average eruption is about 130. That last one was about 140 feet so it was above average. About 8,000 gallons of water comes out each eruption – up to. The water on Old Faithful is a little over 200 degrees F. Water boils at this elevation at 199. All geysers are boiling. If it is erupting as a geyser, throwing water in the air, it has to be boiling or that superheated pocket of water just turns back into liquid before it gets to the surface. It’s got to be boiling at the surface. So 199 is the boiling point. Old Faithful is about 202 – 203, I think, at the surface.
That’s why we have geysers. One more thing, I had a person email me wanting to know more about you know we get asked, “You know Old Faithful used to be almost every hour. Every hour on the hour.” You know, not really. It used to average more like every 60 or 70 minutes. But Old Faithful is a bi-modal geyser. It has 2 modes. It has a short mode and a long mode. Historically, most of the eruptions were short when we first started watching, you know 80 years ago. It had more shorts than longs and that’s how they predict it. When Old Faithful starts erupting a ranger at the visitor center will open a window. They’ll put a stopwatch on that eruption and they’ll estimate the height. It’s the stopwatch that’s the most important. A short eruption will stop before 2 ½ minutes. So if it stops before 2 ½ minutes they’ll write it down as a “short”. They’ll predict the next one 65 minutes from the previous start. If it goes longer than 2 ½ minutes, that’s a “long”. They’ll predict the next one 90 minutes from the previous start. That’s why we only have one prediction at a time. You have to watch it to predict it. You have to see if it’s going to give you a short or a long. Almost all of them are “longs” these days. Every now and then it will throw you a “short”. If you’re just trying to add 90 minutes on top of 90 minutes on top of 90 minutes, you can get way out-of-whack pretty quickly. So we’ve got to watch it to predict it. Old Faithful again is not the biggest, just the most famous. And geysers do have personalities.
Thanks for listening. If you’re back home watching, thank you very much. Maybe we’ll join you again sometime. Thank you all very much.
Live Talk Archive Geysers Galore by Park Ranger George Heinz Presented Live Online in September 2008
Park Ranger George Heinz: My name is George Heinz. I’m a naturalist or interpretive ranger here in Yellowstone. A big question about Yellowstone is why do we have all of this stuff here? Why are there geysers? Why is there hot water pouring out of the ground? Why do we have it here when you probably don’t have that in your backyard? What’s different about Yellowstone?
Audience member: A volcano.
Ranger George: A volcano! So many people come here, and they spend a few days, and they go home, and they don’t realize they just spent their vacation on top of one of the world’s largest volcanoes. Is it active? I see hot water pouring out of the ground. I would bet you, it’s probably active. Yellowstone is one of, and maybe the, largest volcanoes on the planet. This is a massive volcano.
It’s a little different than most of the volcanoes we think of. When we think of volcanoes we think of that little shape, a strato-volcano. Yellowstone is a little different. Yellowstone is more like the Hawaiian volcanoes. But here in the continental United States where do we find most of our volcanoes? The west coast. Those volcanoes formed differently than the Yellowstone volcano.
This is very much simplified, but it really has to do with the weight of rocks, individual types of rocks. All up and down the west coast the Pacific Ocean floor is made up of basalt. Basalt is an extrusive igneous rock. It’s an igneous rock, liquid rock came to the surface and it flowed as lava. So it is extrusive. It made it to the outside of the planet. Basalt is heavy.
There are three main types of igneous extrusive rock; basalt, andesite, and rhyolite. We have a lot of rhyolite. The mountain behind me, the mountain in front of me, those are lava flows made of rhyolite. It’s rich in silica. It’s a very important ingredient for thermal features. But up and down the west coast, you have that heavy ocean floor and it’s banging into the continent. The continent is made up of intrusive igneous rock – granite.
Granite is igneous rock. It is liquid rock. It is trying to come to the surface and it never makes it. It starts to cool before it breaks the surface. So it’s intrusive. It’s inside the planet. It cools very slowly over hundreds and thousands and thousands of years. It cools so slowly that it forms little crystals and impurities and it is light. Granite is much lighter, intrusive rock, than the extrusive rock.
All up and down the west coast you have the continents floating around and you have this ocean floor banging into each other all up and down the west coast. The heavy ocean floor gets pushed below the continent. It’s called a subduction zone. So right up and down the west coast, when that basalt gets pushed down into the planet, it starts to melt. Volcanoes form right above that subduction zone. So you have Mt. Rainier, Mt. Saint Helens, Mt Hood, Mt. Baker, Mt. Shasta, Mt. Lassen – about 50 active volcanoes in North America. They are formed mostly by subduction zones.
Yellowstone’s volcano was formed by a hot spot, a lot like the Hawaiian volcanoes. Our continent is flowing over this hot spot. North America moves a couple inches a year in a southwest direction. So that raises some questions about the shape of the plume of liquid rock under us. So there are a bunch of geologic questions we don’t have the answer for, but we do know that 3 to 6 miles below you there is liquid rock; somewhere in there. So there’s magma right below us.
And this little diagram here – I’m gonna let that camera see it for a second – over here, this is the west, you see Yellowstone up here with these yellow circles. That is representing the hotspot below Yellowstone. Sixteen million years ago the hotspot was below the west coast. The continent has flowed over that hotspot. So right now, it’s below Yellowstone. Yellowstone has had 3 major volcanic eruptions in about the last 2.1 million years. The last one was 640,000 years ago. Geologically speaking, we might be due for a volcanic eruption. If we are, you might as well stay here and get a ride out of the deal because it is going to change the weather on the whole planet. It will throw so much stuff in the atmosphere that the temperatures around the planet will change. Growing seasons will change and things like that. But if you talk about geologic time, if it happens in ten thousand years, that’s pretty close, geologically speaking. It’s not going to affect us, right now. So that’s why we have them.
(Let me see the caldera there.) What happened here in Yellowstone is as that hot spot is underneath us, the ground above that hot spot started to bubble up. The analogy I use is that it’s a lot like a pie. You can tell I’m from Louisville, Kentucky when I say “pie”. It’s a lot like when your grandmother made a pie. She got a pan out. She put a crust in. She put some filling in and she put a crust over the top. But what did she do with that pie before she put it in the oven? She had to poke holes in it. We weren’t around here to poke holes in our big old pie so we got a big old eruption.
Eventually cracks and fissures started to form on the outside of what we call the caldera which is outlined in orange there. This is the map you got at the gate. It has your receipt stapled to it so it’s probably on your dashboard and you probably haven’t opened it. But it will help you get around Yellowstone if you look at it.
This is our caldera so once that pie, little fissures and cracks started forming on the outside of that rim, lava started to flow out, and eventually a big portion of Yellowstone became hollow, the ground sank, and formed a caldera, which is a sunken volcanic crater. It is about 35 by 40 miles across. So it’s a massive thing.
One reason you can’t drive around Yellowstone and tell where the crater is, unless you know what to look for, is because lava flows continued until about 70,000 years ago. They filled in most of that caldera. The lava flow behind me is that ridge and that’s a lava flow in front of me. They’re from different dates but they’ve filled in this section of the caldera. You see that the geyser basin is squeezed right between two lava flows.
So that’s why we have them. We’re on top of this giant volcano. Yellowstone has about 10,000 thermal features and 300 of those are geysers. There are only 600 geysers in the world. So half the geysers in the world are here. And then there are 150 geysers in this geyser basin, the Upper Geyser Basin. So within walking distance of you are ¼ of the world’s geysers. This is an amazing place right here.
What happens is Yellowstone has a lot of earthquakes. We’ve already talked about its being a volcano, we have igneous rock here, well we have about 2000 earthquakes a year here. Those earthquakes keep shaking the ground and they form little cracks and fissures in the volcanic rock here. The water that is being heated by the heat source of the volcano – heat rises so once the water gets heated it wants to come back to the surface. So that hot water starts coming back to the surface and as it’s going through this rhyolite rock, which is rich in silica, it’s dissolving that rock, and it’s pulling minerals out of the rock.
As the water rises it starts to cool and there is less pressure. As it gets closer the pressure drops, the water gets cooler as it’s further from the heat source, those minerals start to precipitate back out because cooler water does not hold the same amount of minerals as the hotter water, so those minerals are coating those fissures that were formed by the earthquakes. They form plumbing systems. Eventually that mineral, the white rock you see out here, it’s a silica-based – call it siliceous sinter or geyserite – it’s just silica that’s being redeposited by the thermal water. Every now and then a hot spring, if it’s hot enough, and the minerals are enough, somewhere in that plumbing system a constriction will form – a tight spot. This is the inside of Old Faithful. I’ll turn it in a minute. I’m gonna let that camera up there look at it. The top up here, that’s the surface of the ground. We stuck a little camera down in Old Faithful some years back, a little-bitty guy on a rope and we got it to almost 50 feet. The water was so hot down there. It was churning. We couldn’t go any further. But we noticed at 22 feet - you look right in here and I’ll show you this after the program if you want to look at it – right at 22 feet there’s a constriction, a tight spot. It’s only a little over 4 inches wide, 22 feet down. There’s going to be 8,000 gallons of water that are going to be pushed up through that 4-inch hole.
So what happens is there’s water up here. There’s a constriction. There’s water below it. The water below it is in a giant chamber and that water is getting hotter and hotter and hotter. It’s under extreme high pressure. It’s like a pressure cooker. So you can go way above the boiling point without boiling because of all the stuff above it; the water, the atmosphere and all that. We noticed, when we were waiting for Old Faithful to go off, you noticed it started to spit a little water. Everybody jumps up like it’s going to go, then they sit back down, you wait a few minutes, it spits a little water. Every time it spits a little water out of that upper chamber it’s dropping the pressure on the lower chamber. Spits a little more water, drops the pressure. Spits a little more water, drops the pressure. Eventually that water down below is able to boil and when it boils it expands about 1500 times. So you had this giant pocket of superheated water that’s flashing into steam and the only place for it to go is straight up. So it starts coming up through the plumbing system. All the water that’s above it gets thrown into the air. Then the steam pocket gets out, the geyser stops.
Old Faithful is not the biggest geyser here. It’s about number 5. You have Giant Geyser, Grand Geyser, Beehive Geyser, and Giantess Geyser. They’re all bigger than Old Faithful when they erupt. Grand just went a little while ago. Beehive went this morning. The other, you know, who knows when they go. Giantess is on Geyser Hill over here – that steam right before you get to the trees – goes once or twice a year, a great big geyser.
That’s how geysers work. They’re like a giant pressure cooker. Once that lower pocket of water is able to turn to steam it throws everything else out of its way. That’s why we have them and thank you for listening. In just a couple of minutes now, at quarter til, I’m going to do one more talk. This last talk is going to be on the personality and myths of some individual geysers, mostly on Geyser Hill over there. We’re going to start that in just a couple of minutes.
Thanks for watching at home.
Audience: Thank you.
Ranger George: You’re welcome. Thanks for listening.
Live Talk Archive Recovery from the 1988 Fires by: Park Ranger George Heinz Presented Live Online in September 2008
Ranger George: So, I’m about ready. How’s everybody doing this morning?
Audience: Great - Fine - It’s beautiful weather!
Ranger George: So, first of all, my name is George Heinz and I’m a naturalist or an interpretive ranger here in Yellowstone and I’ve been working here in the park, on and off, for about 30 years. I started working in the housekeeping department over there at the Old Faithful Inn when I was right out of high school and I’d come out here for the summers. Eventually, when I finished college, I decided I wanted to come back here and be a park ranger. I grew up in Louisville, Kentucky and I’d just like to welcome everybody here and everybody at home.
We have people watching on the Internet. I work in the park’s Web Office and this is an experimental thing we’ve been doing. I’m the first ranger to have a program that’s been sent out live over the Internet. So it’s a pretty exciting thing. This is the last time we’re going to do it for this season. I’m going to do three programs in the next hour; one on fire and two on geology – different programs.
I’d just like to welcome everybody here to Yellowstone on behalf of myself and the National Park Service. I think we’re all pretty lucky to be here and to be able to visit a place like this. If you think about it, in 1872 on March first, when Yellowstone became the world’s first national park it’s pretty amazing that people back then had the foresight to think that this land is so special we need to start setting land aside before it gets taken up by private investments.
Yellowstone is a little different. Has anybody noticed any dead trees as you drove around the park? Maybe a burnt tree here and there? Maybe a lot of burnt trees? If you’re serious about understanding what a place like Yellowstone means, and what forest fires mean to a place like Yellowstone, we have to change the way we think. A forest fire here in Yellowstone National Park is different than a forest fire that you would have near your house. Yellowstone is 2.2 million acres or 3,472 square miles in size. That’s about the size of Rhode Island and Delaware put together. This is a great big place. There are no private homes here. There’s no private land here. It’s all just wilderness except for about 4 or 5 percent of the park, which is Old Faithful, Mammoth, and Canyon, the locations. The rest of the park is wilderness. So fires in a wilderness area, especially a place like Yellowstone, are different than the fires you have in your backyard.
Back in about 1772, that was Yellowstone’s 100th anniversary, we started looking at the park a little differently and a lot of rules were changed regarding the way we manage Yellowstone. We wanted Yellowstone to be a more natural park. We wanted the bears to be bears instead of hanging out along the road where everybody fed them. Today it’s a little harder to see a bear but when you see a bear, it’s a natural bear. It’s doing what bears do. It’s eating bear food so they’re more active at night. They’re more active at the cusp hours. They’re harder to find but when you find one it’s a natural bear.
We also went to a natural regulation when it goes to forest fires. So, when a fire starts here in Yellowstone there are fire experts that work out of Mammoth Hot Springs that look at every fire. We have two fires burning in the park right now. They’re both human-caused fires. One started maybe a month ago. It’s called the LeHardy Fire and it was started when trees fell across a power line on a windy day. That’s considered a human-caused fire. So that fire was fought originally and then it sort of burned out into the wilderness and it’s just sort of smoldering today. They’re monitoring it but there’s not a lot being done, it’s just going to put itself out.
Another fire just started a few days ago near Lake Shoshone. It was also a human-caused fire. Not sure how it started, just a little bitty fire. They sent in some helicopters and they did fight that fire. So if it’s a human-caused fire, trees falling on a power line, a cigarette, a campfire, we fight those fires immediately no matter where they’re at.
If it’s a natural fire that was started by lightening then that fire is looked at. Where did it start? Where is it apt to burn? Which direction is it going to go. Is it going to go toward a famous hotel like the Old Faithful Inn or is it just going to burn out into the wilderness? Is it going to burn toward a gateway community that sits on the outside of the park? What’s the weather been like? What’s the weather expected to be like? So they take into account all those things and then on each individual fire they make a decision whether to go fight that fire or just let it burn itself out.
Most of the time when a fire starts naturally here in Yellowstone, it burns less than an acre and burns itself out. Some years are different. And definitely 1988 was a different year. I did work in the Wolf Lake Fire Camp up around Canyon Village during the fires of 1988. That year, there were fifty-something fires in the park and the red here indicates what was involved in fire. I’m letting this camera look at this for a second and then I’m going to move it around and let everybody see it if you want. The red indicates what burned in 1988; 20 years ago this summer. That is 793,880 acres in red there. That’s 36% of Yellowstone. That does not mean that all of this burned. It just means that fires were in those areas; fires burned through.
We have several different kinds of fires. You have crown fires that burn across the forest and they’re usually in multi-layered forests, where you have middle-aged trees and older trees. Those middle-aged trees act as a ladder and they let that fire grow up into the top part of the forest. Those fires tend to burn everything. They burn the trees. They burn the forest floor and everything.
We also have fires that are called ground fires that just sort of creep along the forest floor. They burn up the litter layer and all the grasses and once you get rid of that litter layer, which is just the first few inches, what we see on the forest floor, it burns up all those old needles all the little wood particles and things like that and then seeds and roots of other plants are exposed. So right after a forest fire, if the fire has crept along the forest floor, maybe even by the end of that summer, but definitely by the next spring, three’s going to be little wild flowers, fireweed and other plants, clovers, plants that are nitrogen-fixers come in first.
Some plants considered nitrogen-fixers take the nitrogen in the atmosphere and they pull it in and they change the form of that nitrogen so other plants can use it. Not all plants have the ability to pull the nitrogen from the atmosphere. Ones that can are called nitrogen-fixers and they’re fixing nitrogen for the next forest. So they’re making sure the next forest can be healthy.
One of the big questions we get about forest fires is about all the dead wood. You know you’ve got wood everywhere. The dead wood you see on the forest floor in Yellowstone is very important. I had a professor in college who called the dead wood in a forest that falls and decays, he called that biological legacy. All the minerals it takes to grow a healthy forest, they go up and the tree has those minerals in it. Then when a forest fire comes along, those minerals either fall to the forest floor right then or over time as the tree decays.
So you’ll notice a lot of dead standing trees in the park. Eighty percent of our trees are lodgepole pines. They are two-needle pines. Eight out of every ten trees in the park, almost every tree you see if you turn around right here, is a lodgepole pine tree. There are a few spruce and firs down right along the river, where there’s a deeper soil, but these trees are dominating Yellowstone because Yellowstone is a volcano. A lot of trees don’t like the thin soil. They don’t like the silica in the soil. These trees don’t mind that. They don’t have much of a tap root so they grow in thin soil. Look at some of them where they’ve fallen over. Look at that root. It’s just more like a hand than like a regular tree that has a tap root that goes down. They just sort of grip the floor. They’re more apt to blow over when they’re alive because they are top-heavy. So once they burn, they can stand there for a long, long time before they fall over. But then once they fall over they start to decay, they build the next level of soil for the next forest that comes along.
One of the neatest things about these lodgepole pine trees, and you’ve probably seen them all over the park, you’ve seen areas that are just babies, like this hillside over here. Those trees were planted on September 7, 1988 as the fire came through. The neatest thing about lodgepole pines is that they have two different types of pinecones. They have a pinecone that opens regularly, like other trees, but they also have a serotinous pinecone. That pinecone the tree covers with a resin or a sap before it opens and it sits there on the tree. When a forest fire goes through a lodgepole pine forest, it heats that resin or that sap, the pinecone opens and it reseeds the forest floor.
One-third of Yellowstone burned in 1988. We didn’t plant a tree and some acres in Yellowstone today have a million trees per acre; some of the areas that burned in 1988. We didn’t plant any of them. Nature planted them. These trees also, here on top of the Yellowstone volcano, they’re not only the first tree to grow, they’re the last tree to grow because the soil is not good enough for spruce and firs to take over the forest. The tree only lives about 200 years so if a forest fire does not go through a lodgepole pine forest every 200 years or so the forest just starts dying off and then it’s much harder for nature to grow a new forest. In a lodgepole pine forest, they need to burn every so often to reseed the next generation.
One of the neatest things I read about forest fires while I was trying to develop this talk is that forest fires do not destroy the old forest, they prepare the land for the next forest. It’s a pretty cool way to look at it. We all want to come here. We all want to see lodgepole pine forests. We also want our kids to see lodgepole pine forests. So if you get a chance when you’re driving around Yellowstone stop at one of those areas that looks like it burned in the last 20 years or so and walk up into some of those baby forests. It’s pretty amazing. If you walk up in there and sit down for a minute and then just look around and act like maybe you’re an animal and you’re looking for a place to hide, or a place to eat, or a place to stay away from the people. Then ask yourself, was Yellowstone really destroyed or was it just changed. A young forest is every bit as natural as an old forest.
We humans, we just have that thing in our mind where we don’t like any fire because we’re afraid of our yards burning but in a place like Yellowstone, where we can let nature take its course, fires are every bit as natural as an old unburned forest and as a young forest is.
I’m going to do another talk here at about quarter after. It might be a little bit later depending on what Old Faithful is doing. Old Faithful is predicted at 11:19 plus or minus 10 minutes. So we’ll wait to see what Old Faithful is doing. My next talk, right around the eruption time, maybe right after, is called Geysers Galore and it’s a geology talk. It’s why we have geysers and why Yellowstone has them and you don’t have them in your back yard.
Even though the animals of Yellowstone seem tame they are still wild. Feeding the animals is not permitted in any way, and all visitors must keep 100 yards away from wolves and bears, and 25 yards from other animals.