Winter Trekking Through Yellowstone’s Thermal and Glacial Features

Cross country skiing in one of the glacial melt-water channels on the Blacktail Plateau.

Some winter days in Yellowstone National Park are so amazing with clear blue skies and sparkling snow that they just take your breathe away. Luckily enough, I just experienced several of these kinds of days which I packed full of cross country skiing, snowshoeing, and animal watching.

One of the groomed trails that held a good snow base until about early afternoon is the Blacktail Plateau Loop. The trail follows melt-water channels that are associated with “Retreat Lake”, which was formed by the Beartooth glacial ice mass blocking the lower end of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone during the Pleistocene.

Rounded cobbles and boulders left behind from melt-water flow sit on the volcanic bedrock in many areas along the trail. Ski tip in the lower right for scale.
Looking back to the northwest on the Blacktail Plateau ski trail. Notice the scoop-shape of the landscape which is the result of this area being part of a glacial melt-water channel.
Calcite Springs overlook is accessible during the winter via the Tower ski trail.

The Tower ski trail provides access to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone area. A favorite stop of mine is the Calcite Springs overlook where the thermal springs lie south of the overlook, on the west side of the Yellowstone River and Pliocene/Pleistocene sediment and basalt are on the Yellowstone River’s east side.

 

A groomed ski trail also accesses the Upper Terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs. However, after a few days of spring-like temperatures, the snow was so melted back that I just used my snowshoes to trek through the icy slush.  Some thermal features were still covered by snow and slush, but others appeared much more vibrant against the white snow/slush blanket.

One of the fissure ridges along the upper Terraces trail is called White Elephant Back Springs and Terrace.

Aphrodite Terraces lie a short way north of the White Elephant Back Springs:

My favorite thermal feature of the Upper Terraces is Orange Spring Mound. The spring is supported by a fissure ridge and is intermittently active. Because of its low water discharge and subsequent slow growth, it has built up a characteristic cone shape.

Orange Spring Mound of the Upper Terraces in Mammoth Hot Springs.

All in all, it was perfect wintertime fun trekking around in Yellowstone. Can’t wait to get back there when the bears come back out from hibernation!

 

The Yellowstone Volcanics

Caldera boundaries of Yellowstone area eruptions over the past 2.1 million years (U.S. Geological Survey - http://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/2005/3024/)
Caldera boundaries of Yellowstone area eruptions over the past 2.1 million years (U.S. Geological Survey – http://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/2005/3024/)

Volcanic stratigraphy is hard to ignore when touring through the Teton to Yellowstone National Parks (YNP) area. Three major volcanic eruption cycles occurred during the last 2.1 million years and resulted in hundreds of feet of volcanic rock. The eruption cycles make a good basis for separating the volcanic rock units and consequently there are three major volcanic stratigraphic units. These major units consist of ash-flow tuffs that erupted at the peak of each cycle and include the Huckleberry Ridge Tuff with an age of 2.1 million years, the Mesa Falls Tuff with an age of 1.3 million years, and the Lava Creek Tuff with an age of 0.64 million years.

The type section of the Huckleberry Ridge Tuff is at the head of a landslide scarp on the Flagg Ranch, about 2 miles northeast of a bridge across the Snake River.
The type section of the Huckleberry Ridge Tuff is at the head of a landslide scarp on the Flagg Ranch, about 1 mile northeast of a bridge across the Snake River.

The type sections of the Huckleberry Ridge Tuff and the Mesa Falls Tuff are fairly accessible. The Huckleberry Ridge Tuff type section sits at the head of a large landslide about 1.5 miles south of the YNP’s south gate and 1 mile northeast of the Snake River Bridge. It’s a big landslide, so it’s easy to spot from the highway. The type section mainly contains welded rhyolitic ash-flow tuff. This huge eruptive event (one of the five largest individual volcanic eruptions worldwide) associated with the Huckleberry Ridge Tuff formed a caldera more than 60 miles across.

The type section of the Mesa Falls Tuff is a road cut along Highway 20, about 3 miles north of Ashton, Idaho.
The type section of the Mesa Falls Tuff is a road cut along Highway 20, about 3 miles north of Ashton, Idaho.

The Mesa Falls Tuff type section is really accessible as it is alongside Highway 20, about 3 miles north of Ashton, Idaho. The type section consists of airfall tuff, partially welded tuff that has an agglomeratic base. The eruption associated with the Mesa Falls Tuff formed the Henrys Fork Caldera which is in the Island Park area west of YNP.

A more detailed view of the Mesa Falls Tuff with its airfall ash overlain by partially welded rhyolitic tuff that has an agglomeratic base.
A more detailed view of the Mesa Falls Tuff with its airfall ash overlain by partially welded rhyolitic tuff that has an agglomeratic base.
Roaring Mountain lies within the Lava Falls Tuff area (photo from NPS/Peaco - https://www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/norrisplan.htm).
Roaring Mountain lies within the Lava Creek Tuff outcropping area in YNP (photo from NPS/Peaco – https://www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/norrisplan.htm).

The Lava Creek Tuff type section is much more difficult to access as its type section in the upper canyon of Lava Creek, about 8 miles into the backcountry of YNP. There are a couple reference sections that are easier to reach, and one is in Sheepeater’s Canyon, about 0.5 miles northeast of Osprey Falls. The Lava Creek Tuff is also readily seen in the south-facing cliffs along much of the Gibbon River. The eruption associated with the Lava Creek Tuff created the Yellowstone Caldera, the 35-mile-wide, 50-mile-long volcanic depression that dominates the present YNP landscape.

There are many more volcanic units associated with the three major eruptive cycles. But spending time looking at the major ash-flow tuff units is a good way to begin to delve into Yellowstone geology.

Yellowstone’s Firehole Lake Drive Reopens

Last Thursday (July 10),Yellowstone National Park (YNP) temporarily closed the 3.3 mile-long Firehole Lake Drive, a paved road that traverses some of Lower Geyser Basin. Melting asphalt on a part of the road near the start of the loop drive became a “soupy mess”, according to Dan Hottle, YNP spokesman. Hottle told Live Science that Firehole Lake Drive’s surface reached 160° Fahrenheit (70° Celsius) on Thursday, roughly 30° to 40° F (17° to 22° C) hotter than usual. Hot gases from area thermal activity that were trapped by the asphalt road surface and warm weather combined to cause the road damage.

YNP said that the road would reopen soon and sure enough, by the time I was there on Monday (July 14), the road was driveable. One of the YNP information rangers at Canyon Village told me that the road repairs included road crews removing damaged pavement and applying a mixture of sand and lime to soak up some of the thick bubbly road oil.  The road section was then graveled so that the hot gases could better escape a more permeable road surface.

I drove over a part of the Fire Hole Lake Drive that was repaired due to melted asphalt last Sunday, soon after the road was reopened.  The damaged road section is now graveled. Note the absence of steam rising from the road surface - even though it was cool and rainy that day.
I drove Firehole Lake Drive loop last Monday, shortly after it was reopened, and stopped to photograph some of the damaged road. The section of the road that contained the melting asphalt is now graveled, and judging by the absence of steam rising off the road (the day was cool and rainy, so I expected to see some steam billowing above the road surface), it looks like the YNP road fix is working.

Thermal activity affecting YNP roads and parking areas is not uncommon. During my Monday travels in Yellowstone, another Canyon area YNP ranger told me that about 10 years ago, a new thermal feature melted a small part of the Mud Volcano parking lot. This area is now fenced off, but the rest of the parking lot is still used. YNP spokesman Hottle also informed Live Science that YNP has closed Firehole Lake Drive in the past for repairs due to heat damage, but that these closures are not frequent.

A small part of the parking lot at Mud Volcano fell victim to thermal activity several years ago.
A small part of the parking lot at Mud Volcano fell victim to thermal activity several years ago.

And – just for some perspective on this latest road meltdown: the YNP website home page says “Yellowstone contains approximately one-half of the world’s hydrothermal features. There are over 10,000 hydrothermal features, including over 300 geysers, in the park”. Given the profusion of thermal activity, I’m not surprised that a small section of asphalt melts once in a while. I guess I’m amazed that the YNP can keep park infrastructure maintained such that millions of people can visit the park every year.

Glacial Geology Field Tripping in the Northern Yellowstone Area

Living near Yellowstone National Park has its advantages – and the best of these is being easily able to go on field trips to the Park area. A field trip opportunity came up last week when the Rocky Mountain section of the Geological Society of America came to Bozeman, Montana, for its annual meeting. One of the meeting field trips was the “Glacial and Quaternary geology of the northern Yellowstone area, Montana and Wyoming”. The trip was led by Ken Pierce, Joe Licciardi, Teresa Krause, and Cathy Whitlock. Having spent much time in the Yellowstone area, I was ecstatic about going along to find out about recent geological work. I won’t elaborate on the specifics of the trip, but for those interested in more than the photos posted below, the field trip guide is available in The Geological Society of America Field Guide 37, 2014, p. 189-203. It’s worth a read!

A few of the stops on the trip:

Paradise Valley – Chico Moraines and Chico Outwash (45.3402 N, 110.6967 W)

Chico moraine boulders have an average cosmogenic age of 16.1 +- 1.7 10BE ka.

 

A succession of outwash terraces border the melt-water channel which is now the Chico Hot Springs road.

North Gardiner Area – Giant Ripples (45.0551 N, 110.7659 W)

Giant ripples occur on a mid-channel bar a few miles north of Gardiner, Montana.
Cosmogenic ages on the flood deposit boulders of the giant ripples average 13.4 +- 1.2 10Be ka.

Northern Yellowstone NP – Blacktail Deer Plateau (44.9577 N, 110.5652 W)

The Blacktail Plateau is capped by moraines of Deckard Flats age - 14.2 +- 10Be ka.
The Blacktail Plateau is capped by moraines of Deckard Flats age – 14.2 +- 10Be ka.

Northern Yellowstone NP – Phantom Lake Ice-Marginal Channel (44.9554 N, 110.5289 W)

The ice-marginal channel that Phantom Lake lies in was cut into volcanic bedrock during the Pinedale glacial recession. The lake is dammed on its down-stream end by a post-glacial age alluvial fan.
The ice-marginal channel that Phantom Lake lies in was cut into volcanic bedrock during the Pinedale glacial recession. The lake is dammed on its down-stream end by a post-glacial age alluvial fan.

Northern Yellowstone NP – Junction Butte Moraines (44.9128 N, 110.3854 W)

The Junction Butte moraines have an age date of 15.2 +-1.3 10Be ka. Large  boulders of Precambrian crystalline rocks and several ponds typify the morainal surface.
The Junction Butte moraines have an age date of 15.2 +-1.3 10Be ka. Large boulders of Precambrian crystalline rocks and several ponds typify the morainal surface.

Yellowstone and Super-Eruptions

Comparison of eruption sizes  using the volume of magma erupted from several volcanoes (From USGS "Questions about Supervolcanoes": http://volcanoes.usgs.gov/volcanoes/yellowstone/yellowstone_sub_page_49.html).
Comparison of eruption sizes using the volume of magma erupted from several volcanoes (From USGS “Questions about Supervolcanoes”: http://goo.gl/efpdDd ).

I give much thought to supervolcanoes – mainly because I live next to Yellowstone National Park and consequently spend much time in the Park. So when I saw today’s Nature publications about the cause of super-eruptions, naturally I wanted to read them.

I’ll first start with a definition for a supervolcano, and for that I’ll use one given by the U.S. Geological Survey:

The term “supervolcano” implies a volcanic center that has had an eruption of magnitude 8 on the Volcano Explosivity Index (VEI), meaning the measured deposits for that eruption is greater than 1,000 cubic kilometers (240 cubic miles). The VEI scale was created as a general measurement of the explosivity of an eruption. There are multiple characteristics used to give an eruption its VEI allowing for the classification of current and historic eruptions. The most common criteria are volume of ejecta (ash, pumice, lava) and column height. All VEI 8 eruptions occurred tens of thousands to millions of years ago making the volume of ejecta or deposits the best method for classification. An eruption is classified as a VEI 8 if the measured volume of deposits is greater than 1,000 cubic kilometers (240 cubic miles). Therefore a supervolcano is a volcano that at one point in time erupted more than 1,000 cubic kilometers of deposits.

Now to today’s online Nature publications for the cause of the eruption. There are two publications and each research team uses a different technique which results in finding two distinct causes for eruptions.

In the “Frequency and magnitude of volcanic eruptions controlled by magma injection and buoyancy, Lucca and others use thermomechanical numerical modeling of magma injection into Earth’s crust and Monte Carlo simulations to observe:

We find that the rate of magma supply to the upper crust controls the volume of a single eruption. The time interval between magma injections into the subvolcanic reservoir, at a constant magma-supply rate, determines the duration of the magmatic activity that precedes eruptions.

Malfait and others, in their “Supervolcano eruptions driven by melt buoyancy in large silicic magma chambers publication, state:

Here we use synchrotron measurements of X-ray absorption to determine the density of silica-rich magmas at pressures and temperatures of up to 3.6 GPa and 1,950 K, respectively. We combine our results with existing measurements of silica-rich magma density at ambient pressures, to show that magma buoyancy can generate an overpressure on the roof of a large supervolcano magma chamber that exceeds the critical overpressure of 10–40 MPa required to induce dyke propagation, even when the magma is undersaturated in volatiles. We conclude that magma buoyancy alone is a viable mechanism to trigger a super-eruption, although magma recharge and mush rejuvenation, volatile saturation, or tectonic stress may have been important during specific eruptions.

As I said earlier, my proximity to Yellowstone has certainly made me take note of research relating to supervolcanoes. So I’m always glad to find ongoing work on them as well as their triggering mechanisms. Hopefully, better overall understanding of supervolcanoes will expand our capability to predict their super-eruptions.