Hydrothermal activity changed Yellowstone geyser basin landscape, MSU researchers say
By Moosetrack Megan

Posted: March 23, 2021

Marshall Swearingen, MSU News Service

BOZEMAN — Yellowstone National Park tourists may stroll the boardwalks of Lower Geyser Basin for an hour or two, snapping photos of richly hued mudpots or jets of boiling water. But what would it be like to watch this dynamic environment change over the past 10,000 years?

According to a recent study by Montana State University researchers, answers lie at the bottom of nearby Goose Lake. Buried within layers of sediment is evidence of abrupt ecological change about four millennia ago, when a shift in hydrothermal activity caused a transformation of the local environment.

“It was a big surprise to find this,” said Cathy Whitlock, regents emerita professor in the Department of Earth Sciences in MSU’s College of Letters and Science. “It reinforces how much Yellowstone is a geo-ecosystem, where an underground magma chamber drives environmental change at the surface.”

When the MSU scientists rowed a pair of rafts onto Goose Lake and used specialized equipment to extract a core of mud and silt nearly 30 feet in length from beneath the lake bottom, they thought they might fill in gaps in their knowledge of the area’s prehistoric climate and vegetation. Whitlock has studied Yellowstone lake sediments for four decades, examining buried layers of pollen and charcoal to reconstruct past patterns of vegetation, fire and climate change.

What was most notable about the Goose Lake samples, however, was a shift in the geochemical composition of the sediments. In the layers below the transition, pollen from lodgepole pine was dominant; above, the pollen was mostly from sagebrush.

The shift couldn’t be explained by the regional and global climate changes posited by previous studies by Whitlock and others. The change in the composition of the core, suggested that a shift in geothermal activity — the geysers and mudpots visible today.

“We don’t know exactly what happened, maybe an earthquake or some kind of geological uplift, but it was like a switch turning on,” said Christopher Schiller, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral researcher in MSU’s Paleoecology Lab led by Whitlock and David McWethy, assistant professor of Earth sciences.

The pollen suggests that before about 3,800 years ago, the roughly 18-square-mile Lower Geyser Basin would have been more like Norris Geyser Basin, where hot pools are surrounded by dense lodgepole forest. A sudden influx of the shallow, widespread geothermal activity would have heated the soils, likely causing trees to die and meadows to expand in their place, according to Schiller, who conducted the research while earning his doctorate at MSU.

“By the time you get to about 3,000 years ago, you might recognize Lower Geyser Basin more or less as it is today — basically treeless, steaming ground,” Schiller said. Today, the area remains one of the most hydrothermally active in the national park and on Earth, with geysers and other thermal features discharging thousands of gallons of hot water each minute.

According to Whitlock, the study raises questions about how extensive environmental change might have been around other Yellowstone geothermal features. “Clearly these landscapes are very dynamic, and it’s something that we can all appreciate — that change is the order of the day and that these geyser basins probably looked completely different even in the relatively recent past. Yellowstone is a very unique place in that respect.”

The Goose Lake study was part of a much larger, $2.7 million project led by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, MSU and other institutions. About half a dozen MSU undergraduates were involved in doing fieldwork and lab analysis, Whitlock said. The study is expected to be published in a forthcoming journal article.