New Thermal Activity Emerges in Yellowstone National Park

April 12, 2019 Updated: April 12, 2019

Scientists said they have discovered new thermal activity in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming that is about the size of four football fields.

Speaking with Wyoming Public Media, United States Geological Survey researcher Greg Vaughan said that the “area used to be covered by trees and now it’s an area where there’s a bunch of dead trees, bright soil and it’s a hot spot.”

He uses satellites to track thermal areas that measure heat being emitted from the ground.

The hot and corrosive hot spot has been “been sneaking up on the park for the last 20 years,” he told the New York Times.

A view of a hot spring at the Norris Geyser Basin at Yellowstone National Park on May 12, 2016. (Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images)

“Yellowstone’s thermal areas are the surface expression of the deeper magmatic system, and they are always changing. They heat up, they cool down, and they can move around,” the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory stated, pointing to the eruption of Ear Spring in September 2018 as a “new thermal feature.”

“These sorts of changes are part of the normal life cycles of thermal areas in Yellowstone National Park,” it added in a blog post earlier this month.

More than 10,000 thermal features are located within the park.

The Norris Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park in September 2009. (Beth Harpaz/AP Photo)

According to the public broadcaster’s report, one day, Vaughan saw a hot spot that hadn’t appeared before. He then compared it with previous images.

These thermal areas, Vaughan said, are formed after snow and water is heated by magma below the surface of the ground, the report noted.

The water or snow then travels back to the surface via cracks and fractures, according to the researcher, who added that hot springs and geysers are signs of a thermal area. “It’s doing everything you expect an active volcano to do except erupt,” he told the Times.

Map of thermal areas in Yellowstone National Park. Most of Yellowstone’s more than 10,000 thermal features are clustered together into about 120 distinct thermal areas (shown in red). Lakes are blue. The Yellowstone Caldera is solid black and the resurgent domes are dotted black. Roads are yellow. The orange box shows the location of the Tern Lake thermal area. (USGS)
A nighttime thermal infrared image from April 2017 showing the Tern Lake area (USGS)

“There are earthquakes very frequently and it can change the orientation of the plumbing system,” added Vaughan. “It can close some areas and reopen some others.”

In the case of the emergence of this recent thermal feature, in 2017, the trees died and the soil turned an unusual, off-white color, he told the Times. In 1994, that wasn’t the case.

In 2003, a thermal area appeared in Yellowstone about the size of a football field.

Areas of the United States that once were covered by volcanic ash from Yellowstone’s giant eruptions 2 million and 630,000 years ago, compared with ashfall from the 760,000-year-old Long Valley caldera eruptions at Mammoth Lakes, California, and the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, Washington (USGS)

Michael Poland, the researcher in charge of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory, has often had to debunk articles saying the Yellowstone caldera, or “supervolcano,” is about to erupt. He told the newspaper that the appearance of a new thermal area isn’t something to worry about, noting that thermal areas appear and disappear in the park.