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UW Researchers Granted Rare Chance to Study Old Faithful

December 11, 2018
geyser erupting
UW researchers recently received permission to execute numerous tests and collect extensive data from Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone National Park. (National Park Service Photo)

Have you ever wondered what it looks like beneath Old Faithful, where the geyser’s waters come from and whether any life exists in that water?

University of Wyoming geology Professor Ken Sims and his colleagues -- UW research scientist Brad Carr, also a member of UW’s Department of Geology and Geophysics, and Eric Boyd, an associate professor at Montana State University -- hope to answer these questions. They recently were permitted by Yellowstone National Park to study Old Faithful up close to seek the answers.

Funded by UW’s Roy Shlemon Quaternary Center, the National Science Foundation and NASA, Sims and his colleagues, along with their teams of students, were allowed to execute numerous tests and collect extensive data from the iconic geyser. Sims specializes in geochemistry, Carr in geophysics and Boyd in microbiology; together, the group studies what Sims terms “geohydrobiology,” or the study of how earth, water and life connect.

The multifaceted research uses new and different techniques to look at each of those aspects of Yellowstone’s hydrothermal system, the largest on any continent. In essence, the work focuses on the pulse of Old Faithful’s dynamics, where and how old its source waters are and how this whole process supports “extremophiles” -- the extreme life that first existed on Earth and gets energy from chemical reactions in rocks instead of from the sun.

“This is a complicated system, but we have the right mix of geophysical, geochemical and biological tools,” Sims says.

After two weeks in the park, the group has now collected enough solid data to allow the members to submit several research papers for review and publication. But, that doesn’t mean Sims and company are done with their research. They already are looking toward another trip back to the park in April to continue to gain a better understanding of Old Faithful’s hydrothermal system.

“We know its surface geometry, but we don’t know the timing and pathways for ascent of the fluids that make Old Faithful erupt. Essentially, we have a two-dimensional understanding of a four-dimensional problem. We can imagine what it looks like under Old Faithful, but we have no knowledge of what it really looks like under there,” Sims says. “However, with this effort, we are changing that and quickly developing an understanding of the Old Faithful system and what makes it all work.”

Watch the trio discuss their research with this video from Yellowstone National Park.

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