Yellowstone Lake Geology

Calm waters of a large lake in front of mountains
The geology below Yellowstone Lake reflects shaping by lava flows where the lake lies within the caldera and shaping by glacial and other processes in the southern half of the lake that lies outside the caldera.

NPS / Diane Renkin

 
Elevational map of Yellowstone Lake and surrounding area
This map shows the geologic features of the lake bottom. The map results from a five-year survey project.

USGS / Lisa Morgan

Until the late 1990s, few details were known about the geology beneath Yellowstone Lake. In 1996, researchers saw anomalies on the floor of Bridge Bay as they took depth soundings. They deployed a submersible remotely operated vehicle (ROV) equipped with photographic equipment and sector-scan sonar. Large targets appeared on the sonar image, then suddenly very large, spire-like structures appeared in the photographic field of view. These structures looked similar to hydrothermal structures found in deep ocean areas, such as the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and the Juan de Fuca Ridge. The structures also provided habitat for aquatic species such as fresh-water sponges and algae.

Lake-bottom Surveys

From 1999 to 2007, scientists from the US Geological Survey and a private company, Eastern Oceanics, surveyed the bottom of Yellowstone Lake using high-resolution, multi-beam swath sonar imaging, seismic reflection profiling, and a ROV. The survey confirmed the northern half of the lake is inside the 640,000-year- old Yellowstone Caldera and mapped previously unknown features such as large hydrothermal explosion craters, siliceous spires, hundreds of hydrothermal vents and craters and fissures. The survey also mapped young previously unmapped faults, landslide deposits, and submerged older lake shorelines. These features are part of an undulating landscape shaped by rhyolitic lava flows that filled the caldera. The southern half of the lake lies outside the caldera and has been shaped by glacial and other processes. The floor of the Southeast Arm has many glacial features, similar to the glacial terrain seen on land in Jackson Hole, south of the park.

 
Colorful elevational map with numerous marks for hydrothermal features
Hydrothermal vents in northern Yellowstone Lake, which has existed since the end of the Pinedale glaciation. The lake drains north at Fishing Bridge into the Yellowstone River. The elevation does not drop substantially until LeHardy’s Rapids.

USGS / Lisa Morgan

These new surveys give an accurate picture of the geologic processes shaping Yellowstone Lake and determine geologic influences affecting the present-day aquatic biosphere. For example, hydrothermal explosions formed craters at Mary Bay and Turbid Lake. Spires may form similarly to black smoker chimneys, which are hydrothermal features associated with oceanic plate boundaries.

 
Underwater photo of Bridge Bay spire
A photo of bridge Bay Spire.

UWS/UWM Great Lakes Water Institute

Spire Analysis

With the cooperation of the National Park Service, scientists from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee collected pieces of spires and a complete small spire for study by several teams. They conducted a CAT scan of the spire, which showed structures seeming to be conduits, perhaps for hydrothermal circulation. When they cut open the spire, they confirmed the presence of conduits and also saw a layered structure.

Tests by the US Geological Survey show that the spire is about 11,000 years old, which indicates it was formed after the last glaciers retreated. In addition to silica, the spire contains diatom tests (shells) and silica produced by underwater hydrothermal processes. The spire’s interior shows evidence of thermophilic bacteria. Scientists say this suggests that silica precipitated on bacterial filaments, thus playing an important role in building the spire.

Both research projects expanded our understanding of the geological processes at work beneath Yellowstone Lake. Additional study of the spires and other underwater features will continue to contribute to our understanding of the relationship between these features and the aquatic ecosystem.

 

More Information

References

Cuhel, R. et al. 2005. The Bridge Bay spires. Yellowstone Science. 12(4): 25–40.

Morgan, L. et al. 2003. The floor of Yellowstone Lake is anything but quiet. Yellowstone Science. 11(2): 15–30.

Morgan, L., ed. 2007. Integrated geoscience studies in the greater Yellowstone area—Volcanic, tectonic, and hydrothermal processes in the Yellowstone geoecosystem. USGS Professional Paper 1717. pubs.usgs.gov/pp/1717/

Last updated: July 11, 2016

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