Today is an exciting day in Yellowstone for a group of researchers, and also possibly for those of us who watch the webcam on a regular basis. Starting today and going through next Monday (9-13 April 2015), the research team will use GPR (Ground Penetrating Radar) to try and answer the question brought up by a previous study of if Old Faithful Geyser is connected to Split Cone. GPR was brought up in the 2013 NPS Hydrothermal Science Review Panel as a means for imaging shallow stratigraphy and structure in the Old Faithful area.
Normally when research is conducted in the Old Faithful area in view of the webcam, the webcam is turned off or the camera operator is instructed to keep the camera away from researchers. This is done simply because if people see anyone walking off the boardwalks, they follow suit. Those of us without research permits need to stay on trail/boardwalk. This is done to protect the thermal features and all of us visitors. But from the sounds of it, we will be able to watch this research being done on the webcam as this has been stated in the information released:
You will notice that the scientific team travels off-boardwalk. All scientific team members are wearing special protective clothing. Every member of the scientific team has extensive experience working in hydrothermal areas near geysers. Drs. Heasler and Jaworowski have experience specifically with Old Faithful Geyser and the Upper Geyser Basin. Each day begins with a safety briefing. During the briefing, the tasks for that specific day will be reviewed and any hazards associated with the proposed work will be discussed.
While attending the Hydrothermal Science Review Panel session, it became clear that with the new technology available, more research needs to be done to better understand what is happening below ground – especially with Old Faithful. You see, with each large earthquake event that has affected the geysers, while some geysers sped up, Old Faithful has slowed a bit.
In 1878, intervals between eruptions of Old Faithful could be anywhere between 54 minutes and 78 minutes. In the 1960s (after the big 1959 Hebgen Lake 7.5 earthquake) the average was about an hour between eruptions, but it could be up to an hour and a half. In 1983, the 7.3 Borah Peak earthquake changed it to a bit longer with a 76 minute average and a maximum of 114 minutes. After the 1988 earthquake swarm in the Upper Geyser Basin, Old Faithful lengthened the interval to about an hour and a half, but also as long as 2 hours which is what we currently see.
Combine that with an increased number of people visiting the Upper Geyser Basin to see the famous geyser each year, and the question becomes the one raised by the panel:
If the intervals get longer and visitation increases, at what point does traffic and parking before and after an eruption become a very serious problem?
Right now, the crowds right before an eruption and after have been compared to Times Square on New Year’s Even and Times Square on a normal day, but happening every 90-120 minutes. That’s an enormous number of people to manage. All of them controlled by one famous natural wonder: Old Faithful Geyser.
One question that came up on the walk around the Old Faithful area with the Panel in 2013 was whether or not Split Cone was connected to Old Faithful. Split Cone may be incredibly regular as well at times. Some entries in Geyser Times (click on ‘Retrieve’ and enter ‘Split Cone’) show it to erupt about every 100 minutes. Yet there are days where it is not reported at all. If they are connected, and the tiny eruptions pull just a tiny bit of energy from Old Faithful, that might help to explain why the intervals between eruptions of Old Faithful have increased – the earthquakes may have changed the plumbing system. But then again, they may not be at all connected. Either way, having a better idea of just how Old Faithful’s plumbing works will be a benefit.
So, how will they do this study and what might we see on the live streaming webcam?
GPR is a non-invasive technique that does not require any drilling or excavation. An antenna is either carried in a cart, pushed on a wheeled unit or sledded over the ground surface to acquire the subsurface information. The best data acquisition occurs when the GPR unit is sledded on the ground. However, if sledding results in damage to the siliceous sinter around Old Faithful, the GPR unit will be moved using a cart.
While it may take quite some time for a report to come out on the work to be done in the next few days, it’s exciting to think we might finally get a better picture of exactly how Old Faithful’s plumbing system works.