Yellowstone National Park experienced historic flooding earlier this summer. There were a lot of impacts on things like roads, tourism, and infrastructure, causing the landscape to change dramatically. But what about other things – like earthquakes and explosions? Yellowstone is one of the most seismically active regions in the country.
Caitlin Tan of Wyoming Public Radio spoke with Mike Poland, the scientist in charge of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory, to find out.
Caitlin Tan: What I wanted to get into with you is seismic activity, and how that might have been affected by the floods. With Yellowstone, I feel like there’s always this constant question of “when will it erupt?” Do you think floods from summer could lead to more seismic activity?
Mike Poland: It’s not likely to cause more earthquakes, or any activity at all in Yellowstone. There are two reasons for this.
First, the rates of groundwater intrusion, that is, water that enters below the surface, is relatively slow compared to how fast rivers carry water away. So it’s not like all that water went straight to the ground and disappeared. Of course, most of it ended up in the rivers and eventually in the Gulf of Mexico as it collapsed into Yellowstone, Missouri and Mississippi.
Another reason is that a lot of the earthquakes in Yellowstone are driven by water interacting with existing tectonic faults. It’s not so much about the volcanic system there – that’s one of the biggest misconceptions about the area. But a lot of that water is already in the ground, and it comes from below. So this is the water that fell as rain or snow a long time ago, and it creeps down into the ground and is heated by the hot earth and the magma system that’s many miles below it. Then it starts to rise again. And that’s the water that this kind of fault gets in and helps cause some of those faults to slip with these very small earthquakes.
So precipitation likely won’t, in the context of Yellowstone, cause that much of an effect on seismic activity. We have seen quite a few places in the world where rainfall can have an effect on earthquakes. But in Yellowstone, we’ve never really noticed these kinds of correlations. So it’s not something I expect we’ll see any changes.
CT: So you do these monthly videos sort of updating people on the geological activity in the park. And in one of your videos, you mentioned that there were 149 earthquakes in June, which you said is actually normal, which is pretty wild to me. I think many of us may not have realized how many small earthquakes there are. Can you kind of clarify that? Can we feel these earthquakes?
MP: It’s funny, isn’t it, that Yellowstone is actually one of the most seismically active places in the country. There are, on average, between 1,500 and 2,500 earthquakes each year, but 99 percent of them are of magnitude 2 or less. These are in fact imperceptible. This type of earthquake is normal. I like to just say that Yellowstone is Yellowstone. This is what the place does.
CT: Well, what about the geysers, were they at all affected by the floods?
MP: Well, the heaters will probably be affected, although it will take some time to really see. This is because there is a relationship between total precipitation, precipitation and geyser activity. In years when we experience more precipitation, there can be a decrease in the interval between hot spring eruptions. And then when the precipitation is less, there can be an increase in that time. This is not something that most people will necessarily perceive, but it does become statistically significant.
For example, if you track the Old Faithful eruption, you might see that on average in a wet year, they were two minutes closer to each other during a dry year, when they are two minutes apart.
So it’s not something you’d notice if you were hanging out at Old Faithful, but statistically, we can see that when we look at the big data sets. So it’s too early to say if a flood event will have this kind of effect. Indeed, it is likely that the only real effects the flood would have on the Yellowstone hydrothermal system would be a slight change in the interval between eruptions in some hot springs.
Flood damage in Yellowstone National Park.
CT: Also in one of your recent videos, you talked about Steamboat Geyser. It is the most active geyser in the world. But you mentioned that she wasn’t quite as active as previous years. I wonder why this?
MP: I wish we knew why. This is one of the true elegant mysteries of Yellowstone. I think a lot of people have this perception that heaters behave in a predictable way. Some of them do. Old Faithful is kind of a classic example of that. But there are a huge number of heaters that behave randomly. They do not break out on any specific schedule. They don’t really have recurring periods. They change a lot over time.
Steamboat is a great example of this. It will go through phases where it can go years without a major eruption. Water can splash and cause minor eruptions, but there may be years between major eruptions. And then you will enter a period where there are many big eruptions in a short period of time. I did it in the sixties. I did it in the eighties. And it’s doing so now with a really impressive number of major volcanic eruptions since 2018.
But why does it become active and then exit? We really don’t have to deal with that. We can say what is not. It has nothing to do with, as we can tell, precipitation. It has nothing to do with earthquake activity or ground temperature. So my best guess is that it has something to do with the heater’s plumbing system. I like to think of these heaters as the type of plumbing system you have in an old home. It simply causes a leak, and then your entire plumbing system is messed up. And heaters are kind of like that – they’re fragile. There are a lot of minerals that are deposited on the channels that carry water to the geysers. And so they’re really subject to a lot of change.
CT: Well Mike, is there any other notable geological activity from the summer you’re looking forward to going forward that you can share with us?
MP: We hope to make an elegant and comprehensive expedition to this new thermal area. There is an area called Turn Lake, which is somewhat to the east of the Grand Canyon. And a few years ago, looking at the satellite data, there were some scientists working at the volcano observatory who noticed a hot area there where there was no hot area before. Kind of diving into this and looking at it, they find it’s a new thermal area.
It was a healthy forest in the early 2000s and late 1990s. But over the past 20 years, trees have been dying, and the ground has turned the chalky white we see in a lot of thermal zones, warmed to boiling temperatures just a few inches from the ground. This really provides a great opportunity to understand the life cycle of these thermal regions. We’ve seen some of them hibernate, but we haven’t really seen the birth of one of them.
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