Solute and geothermal flux monitoring using electrical conductivity in the Madison, Firehole, and Gibbon Rivers, Yellowstone National Park

Applied Geochemistry
By: , and 



The thermal output from the Yellowstone magma chamber can be estimated from the Cl flux in the major rivers in Yellowstone National Park; and by utilizing continuous discharge and electrical conductivity measurements the Cl flux can be calculated. The relationship between electrical conductivity and concentrations of Cl and other geothermal solutes (Na, SO4, F, HCO3, SiO2, K, Li, B, and As) was quantified at monitoring sites along the Madison, Gibbon, and Firehole Rivers, which receive discharge from some of the largest and most active geothermal areas in Yellowstone. Except for some trace elements, most solutes behave conservatively and the ratios between geothermal solute concentrations are constant in the Madison, Gibbon, and Firehole Rivers. Hence, dissolved concentrations of Cl, Na, SO4, F, HCO3, SiO2, K, Li, Ca, B and As correlate well with conductivity (R2 > 0.9 for most solutes) and most exhibit linear trends. The 2011 flux for Cl, SO4, F and HCO3 determined using automated conductivity sensors and discharge data from nearby USGS gaging stations is in good agreement with those of previous years (1983–1994 and 1997–2008) at each of the monitoring sites. Continuous conductivity monitoring provides a cost- and labor-effective alternative to existing protocols whereby flux is estimated through manual collection of numerous water samples and subsequent chemical analysis. Electrical conductivity data also yield insights into a variety of topics of research interest at Yellowstone and elsewhere: (1) Geyser eruptions are easily identified and the solute flux quantified with conductivity data. (2) Short-term heavy rain events can produce conductivity anomalies due to dissolution of efflorescent salts that are temporarily trapped in and around geyser basins during low-flow periods. During a major rain event in October 2010, 180,000 kg of additional solute was measured in the Madison River. (3) The output of thermal water from the Gibbon River appears to have increased by about 0.2%/a in recent years, while the output of thermal water for the Firehole River shows a decrease of about 10% from 1983 to 2011. Confirmation of these trends will require continuing Cl flux monitoring over the coming decades.

Study Area

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Solute and geothermal flux monitoring using electrical conductivity in the Madison, Firehole, and Gibbon Rivers, Yellowstone National Park
Series title Applied Geochemistry
DOI 10.1016/j.apgeochem.2012.07.019
Volume 27
Issue 12
Year Published 2012
Language English
Publisher Elsevier
Contributing office(s) Volcano Hazards Program, National Research Program - Central Branch
Description 12 p.
First page 2370
Last page 2381
Country United States
State Wyoming
Other Geospatial Firehole River, Gibbon River, Madison River, Yellowstone National Park
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