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The hot mineral springs in Thermopolis soothe Suzanne Smaglik's quest to document the different species of microbes that live in the steamy environment. The earth and physical science professor at Central Wyoming College (CWC) is receiving a technological boost from the University of Wyoming to assist her research efforts.
“I hope to find clues to early life on Earth. Some of these species are related to some of the first we have found in fossils in the rock record,” Smaglik says. “We can find out how these thermophiles (heat-loving microbes) live in these environments and apply that to what we know about ancient life.”
To help forward her work in Hot Springs State Park, Smaglik borrowed geophysics equipment from UW’s Wyoming Center for Environmental Hydrology and Geophysics (WyCEHG).
UW’s collaboration with the state’s community colleges is part of the outreach component of a five-year, $20 million grant award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to Wyoming’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR). The grant has enabled WyCEHG to acquire unique instrumentation for field and lab studies in hydrology and near-surface geophysics, as well as to hire experts in the use of those instruments.
“A key part of the $20 million EPSCoR grant is outreach to and collaboration with community colleges in Wyoming,” says Steve Holbrook, director of WyCEHG and a UW professor of geology and geophysics. “It’s important for us -- and the National Science Foundation -- that this large grant benefit the entire state of Wyoming, not just a few researchers at UW.”
“Our partner faculty at three community colleges wrote proposals -- or co-wrote them with their students -- to use our equipment for groundwater-related studies around the state,” Holbrook says. “We, in turn, provide funding for their field work, free access to our equipment, and training in both the equipment and the data analysis techniques.”
In May, Brad Carr, a senior research scientist in UW’s Department of Geology and Geophysics and facility manager for WyCEHG’s Facility for Imaging the Near- and Subsurface Environment (FINSE), conducted a two-day training session of the equipment with professors and students from Casper College and Central Wyoming College. During the session, researchers learned the basics of ground-penetrating radar, seismic refraction, electrical resistivity and soil conductivity measurements.
A Geophysical Jolt
Smaglik -- with the help of Ruth Law, a CWC sophomore majoring in earth and environmental science, and Lance Murakami, Smaglik’s volunteer assistant -- spent the morning of Aug. 3 pounding stakes along a 75-meter swath of land over a cave at White Sulfur Springs along the Big Horn River. The group hooked electrodes to the stakes, which were set up every two meters along the measuring tape.
The researchers then set up and programmed the Super Sting R8, an earth resistivity meter that injects an electrical current to help researchers to image the cave.
“We’re hoping to see the void of the cave and the potential water flow to the cave,” Smaglik says.
Law had previously crawled as far back as she could -- about 12-14 feet -- into the cave and found the ground inside to be moist, where she collected thermophile samples. Spring water emerges from a small hole nearby the cave entrance.
“One of my goals is to get students involved in field research and get them excited about doing science,” Smaglik says. “Using this WyCEHG equipment gets freshmen and sophomores involved in research right away. The UW grant also provides us funding to pay students to have internships with me, and allows students to present their findings statewide or nationally. We will be presenting the results of this project in October at the Geological Society of America meeting in Denver.”
Law is grateful for the opportunity to use new equipment in the field in Thermopolis, as well as other research she has conducted with Smaglik. The experience has paid off; Law is currently an intern at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) office in Riverton.
“The fact that I could say I had field experience helped a lot” in securing the internship, Law says. “The majority of my internship is in the field. Hopefully, this opens up opportunities to apply for non-competitive jobs, which are open to people already working in the USGS.”
Pursuing Thermal Biology
Smaglik’s interest in studying the hot springs was piqued after attending a thermal biology workshop at Yellowstone National Park in 2005.
“I asked if anyone had done any thermal biology research in Thermopolis, and they said ‘no,’” Smaglik says.
Hot Springs State Park contains one of the largest mineral hot springs in the world. Water flow fluctuates between 1.8 million gallons and 2.4 million gallons daily and is 128 degrees Fahrenheit, according to park records and the Wyoming State Engineer’s Office. Smaglik says she has consistently measured the Big Spring’s temperature at 126 degrees Fahrenheit.
Thermal features at the park differ from those found in Yellowstone, which are heated by magma near the Earth’s surface. The hot spring water found at the park originates in the Owl Creek Mountains to the south, where surface water seeps down through layers of porous rock.
As the water flows deeper into the earth, it is heated due to geothermal gradient, which is a natural increase in the earth’s temperature as the depth increases, and is enhanced by the proximity to the Yellowstone hot spot. When the heated water reaches a fault within the Thermopolis Anticline, the water channels back to the surface. Gas bubbles rising to the surface of the water may be the source of the hydrogen sulfide, which creates the unusual odor of the springs, Smaglik says.
For the past six years, the Big Spring, and its outflow channel in the park, has served as Smaglik’s primary sample collection site for water chemistry and thermophiles. The Big Spring microbes are primarily a dark green, becoming tipped or covered in white down the outflow channel. Along the edges of the channel, where the water is cooler, yellow and brown hued microbes occur. As the water cools, it deposits travertine, which is a form of dissolved limestone deposited by mineral hot springs.
“These ‘critters’ are bright green,” Smaglik says as she scoops up a handful of the slimy muck. “The water is saturated in carbonate and sulfate from the surrounding rocks. There are hundreds of species in the spring. Some are unknown, and discovering them would be cool.”
Smaglik says she wouldn’t be conducting any geophysical research at the hot springs without the UW equipment.
“The goal is to get these powerful but user-friendly technologies out into the state to support research projects devised by community college students and faculty,” Holbrook says. “The research that she and her students are doing around Thermopolis is a great example of this. In the future, we hope to expand this program to other community colleges and even to high schools around Wyoming.”
Suzanne Smaglik (foreground), a Central Wyoming College (CWC) professor of earth and physical science, and Ruth Law, a CWC sophomore majoring in earth and environmental science, set up the Super Sting R8 resistivity equipment that was used to image a cave at White Sulfur Springs in Thermopolis. CWC borrowed the equipment from UW’s Wyoming Center for Environmental Hydrology and Geophysics (WyCEHG). (UW Photo)