Yellowstone: Expert says earthquake activity is 'significant'
Yellowstone volcano is one of the most seismically active places on the planet, with up to 3,000 earthquakes striking the Yellowstone region each year. Yellowstone is also home to a volcanic hotspot that has produced three major eruptions in the last 2.3 million years, one of which was 2,500 times bigger than the 1980 eruption of Mt St Helens in Washington State. But the US national park also houses the world’s highest concentration of active geysers with features such as the world-famous Steamboat Geyser and Old Faithful.
The geysers are fuelled by the Yellowstone hotspot, which causes water trapped underground to reach boiling temperatures.
As the water boils away underground, it reaches temperatures hotter than water boiling at the surface.
The water can then rapidly rise upwards in a flash of steam that propels scorching jets of water and steam to the surface.
Although scientists understand how this process works, geologists have very limited access to what happens beneath the park’s surface.
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But there has been a concentrated effort to learn more about Yellowstone’s hydrothermal features and mineralogy by drilling into the park.
The very first drilling expedition was carried out between 1929 and 1930 by Clarence N. Fenner, who drilled boreholes into Yellowstone’s Upper Geyser Basin and Norris Geyser Basin.
There was some concern the drilling could cause damage or other changes to the famous features.
Fenner said at the time: “Apprehension had been expressed that the drilling of a hole would interfere with underground circulation and disturb geyser action, though this fear was believed to be unwarranted, it was decided to operate outside of the main geyser areas, but still within the undoubted region of hydrothermal activity.”
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According to the US Geological Survey (USGS), the drilling caused changes to the pools and fumaroles near to the drill site.
The work was eventually halted by high fluid pressures in the Norris Geyser Basin.
But the effort laid out the groundwork for the next expedition carried out nearly 40 years later.
In 1967 to 1968, the USGS conducted drilling experiments led by D.E. white and John M. Good, Chief Naturalist of Yellowstone National Park.
A total of 13 boreholes were drilled across the park’s major hot-spring areas.
And though the scientists were confident in their work, based on previous experiences and Fenne’s research, their drilling soon encountered steam eruptions from deep underground.
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White wrote of the experience: “Within a few seconds the top cool water was followed by a mixture of boiling water and steam, and the well surged into violent eruption – a shattering experience for all of us! …Boiling water and steam covered the drilling platform and concealed the control levers…”
Soon enough, however, the scientists learned how to managed these eruptions even though they could not be stopped.
Their boreholes reached depths of 215 to 1,081ft, with an average depth of about 520ft.
The drilling allowed the scientists to describe the mineral makeup of Yellowstone’s subsurface.
Most of the boreholes were plugged but some were left open for future water sampling.
One of these boreholes erupted with water and steam in 1992 in Yellowstone’s Biscuit Basin.
The eruption was contained by the USGS and US National Parks Service (NPS) and the well was plugged.
According to Andrew Miller and Professor Ken Sims from the Department of Geology and Geophysics at the University of Wyoming, drilling into Yellowstone has proven to be a challenging but rewarding endeavour.
In the latest issue of the USGS’s Caldera Chronicles, they wrote: “Thanks to this careful work and the meticulously catalogued rock samples that were obtained, we continue to benefit from the research drilling today, applying new analyses methods to these old samples.
“The Yellowstone research drilling programs have been a scientific gift that keeps giving and are helping us better understand – and better preserve – Yellowstone’s dynamic hydrothermal systems!”
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