Potential application of radiogenic isotopes and geophysical methods to understand the hydrothermal dystem of the Upper Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park

Natural Resource Report NPS/YELL/NRR—2015/1077
By: , and 



Numerous geochemical and geophysical studies have been conducted at Yellowstone National Park to better understand the hydrogeologic processes supporting the thermal features of the Park. This report provides the first 87Sr/86Sr and 234U/238U data for thermal water from the Upper Geyser Basin (UGB) intended to evaluate whether heavy radiogenic isotopes might provide insight to sources of groundwater supply and how they interact over time and space. In addition, this report summarizes previous geophysical studies made at Yellowstone National Park and provides suggestions for applying non-invasive ground and airborne studies to better understand groundwater flow in the subsurface of the UGB. Multiple samples from Old Faithful, Aurum, Grand, Oblong, and Daisy geysers characterized previously for major-ion concentrations and isotopes of water (δ2H, δ18O, and 3H) were analyzed for Sr and U isotopes. Concentrations of dissolved Sr and U are low (4.3–128 ng g-1 Sr and 0.026–0.0008 ng g-1 U); consequently only 87Sr/86Sr data are reported for most samples. Values of 87Sr/86Sr for most geysers remained uniform between April and September 2007, but show large increases in all five geysers between late October 2007 and early April, 2008. By late summer of 2008, 87Sr/86Sr values returned to values similar to those observed a year earlier. Similar patterns are not present in major-ion data measured on the same samples. Furthermore, large geochemical differences documented between geysers are not observed in 87Sr/86Sr data, although smaller differences between sites may be present. Sr-isotope data are consistent with a stratified hydrologic system where water erupted in spring and summer of 2007 and summer of 2008 equilibrated with local intracaldera rhyolite flows at shallower depths. Water erupted between October 2007 and April 2008 includes greater amounts of groundwater that circulated deep enough to acquire a radiogenic 87Sr/86Sr, most likely from Archean basement rocks. Details of how the shallow and deep components interact and mechanisms causing these interactions remain unknown, but the data demonstrate the usefulness of obtaining Sr-isotope data from future sample campaigns. Geophysical methods that would be useful for characterization of the UGB subsurface properties and geothermal system include electromagnetic (EM), gravity, and ambient seismic. A suite of ground-based EM methods could be used in a synergistic combination together with airborne EM surveys to provide data for a range of spatial scales and resolutions. Existing thermal data for the shallow subsurface could be used to relate ground and airborne EM survey data to locations of geothermal fluids near the surface. Gravity surveys would be useful for mapping subsurface density anomalies and possibly monitoring changes in degree of saturation with groundwater. Ambient seismic surveys would be useful for estimating the thickness of unconsolidated deposits that contain the shallow groundwater system. A study that combines radiogenic isotope tracers with geophysical methods has the potential to better characterize the geothermal workings in the UGB. Insights gained could lead to a better understanding of the geothermal system and how Park infrastructure may cause perturbations. Measurements of radiogenic isotopes from multiple geysers and pools in localized areas within the UGB that are coupled with data from geophysical surveys would help refine conceptual models of mixing between deep- and shallow-derived subsurface fluids.

Study Area

Additional publication details

Publication type Report
Publication Subtype Other Government Series
Title Potential application of radiogenic isotopes and geophysical methods to understand the hydrothermal dystem of the Upper Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park
Series title Natural Resource Report
Series number NPS/YELL/NRR—2015/1077
Year Published 2015
Language English
Publisher National Park Service
Contributing office(s) Geosciences and Environmental Change Science Center
Description Report: viii, 33 p.; Appendixes A & B
Country United States
State Wyoming
Other Geospatial Yellowstone National Park
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
Additional metadata about this publication, not found in other parts of the page is in this table