Buffalo Bill exhibit shows what lies at the bottom of Yellowstone Lake


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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

A new exhibit at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody allows the public to share the fascinating details uncovered by a research project into what lies at the bottom of Yellowstone Lake.

The exhibit titled “What Lies Beneath” highlights the dark waters explored as part of the Hydrothermal Dynamics of Yellowstone Lake project.

“At the Center of the West, we really explore the history of the American West and share it with our visitors,” said Nathan Doerr, curator of the Draper Museum of Natural History at the Center. “We are focused on awakening curiosity, stimulating exploration and ultimately creating defenders of this amazing place, and this exhibit does a tremendous job as it arouses curiosity based on these phenomenal photographs – and then presents incredible research. “

Dr Rob Sohn of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, director of the Hydrothermal Dynamics project, the goal of the project is to understand how earthquakes, volcanic processes and climate affect the hydrothermal system below the lake.

“I have spent a large part of my career studying hydrothermal systems in the deep sea,” he said. “I was researching the geysers in Yellowstone right after the big earthquake swarm in 2008, 2009 – it was one of the biggest swarms of the past two decades, and it was born under the lake and spread straight north to the Hotel du Lac. And we knew that these earthquakes were occurring just below certain areas of the lake bottom where there were thermal areas that had been documented.

“And Jake (Lowenstern of the US Geological Survey) kind of bemoaned me that, ‘Damn, we have no way of knowing how these earthquakes affected these hydrothermal systems. It would be great if we could have watched this and understood what was really going on, ”Sohn continued. “And so he kind of turned to me and said, ‘Rob, aren’t you monitoring the underwater hydrothermal systems? You should write a proposal to (the National Science Foundation) to do this study. ‘ And I was like, “Jake, this is a really good idea.”

The roughly $ 5 million proposal was accepted by the NSF in 2014, and the Sohn team began work in 2016. The expedition used new technology that was created specifically for this project, according to the Dr Sohn.

The newly developed technology included the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) named “Yogi” and the boat used to scour the surface of the lake, which was loaded with equipment that allowed scientists to monitor what was happening at the bottom of the lake.

“When we put our team together, we had this interesting mix of people who are global experts in Yellowstone geology and Yellowstone hydrothermal fluids,” Sohn said. “And then we combined that with some deep sea tech experts that you need to study those kinds of features. “

“Much of the design of this equipment occurred in distant landscapes and in oceans far from Wyoming,” Doerr said. “And then bringing that technology… to Yellowstone National Park and specifically Yellowstone Lake offers an incredible opportunity. “

“Just having the ability to dive in there and take a sample of the fluid, for example – that’s a pretty tough little tech trick,” Sohn added. “And so we just got a lot of background information on these systems so that – just like trying to understand a patient – we gave them a pretty comprehensive set of tests, if you will.”

The exhibit features photos of the work taken by photographer Chris Linder with Woods Hole. Doerr said it was Linder who brought the project to the centre’s attention.

“Exhibitions like this can inspire the younger generations to pursue truly phenomenal careers and truly interesting careers,” he said. “But then the research itself presents us with so much information – about landscapes that may be obvious to us from basic natural history, or just to the naked eye; learn the history especially of the lake bottom, and the impacts of things like earthquakes and volcanic events and the climate, how these can change; even these hydrothermal features 400 feet below the surface of Yellowstone Lake. “

So what is hidden under the waters of Yellowstone Lake?

“These hot springs, they’re in the lake, and it’s a pretty deep lake – it’s over 100 meters (328 feet) deep,” Sohn said. “But you know, we found out that there is a giant vapor reservoir under Yellowstone Lake and the rock in the sediment below the lake that feeds this hot spring area.

“In terms of thermal output, it’s 30 megawatts over a very small area, and the roof of this reservoir is about 15 meters below the bottom of the lake,” Sohn continued. “So you actually have this huge reservoir blowing steam through the sediment to create these thermal zones. And so being able, in a way, to describe the geometry and the position of this vapor reservoir has been one of the main results of our work. “

Another discovery made during the expedition was how the pressure changes from this steam vent affect the lake itself.

“We were able to determine that these fluids coming out of this particular thermal zone are saturated with volcanic gases, mainly carbon dioxide and, and sulfur species, hydrogen sulfide,” Sohn explained. “And when these fluids have this high saturation, it makes them very sensitive to pressure changes, and you can basically explode them.

“And so our best guess is that if you have an event that causes the pressure on these systems to drop quickly, you can decompress them and explode and cause higher thermal explosions,” he continued. “So if you’ve had an earthquake and there are a lot of fault zones near the lake that actually cross the lake, you could generate the lake equivalent of a tsunami. So we have just learned a lot about the sensitivity of this system, especially to pressure changes.

The exhibition will be on display at the Center of the West until May 2022. More details can be found at https://centerofthewest.org/2021/02/04/exhibition-what-lies-beneath/

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