Geyser watching is hot stuff.
Meet Ranger Rick--Ranger Rick Hutchinson, that is! Rick loves his job at Yellowstone National Park. He started out as a ranger and now he's a scientist. Here he's checking out a geyser (GUY-zur; see photo at left). Using a special instrument, Rick can figure out how high the geyser is spouting.
This geyser is one of hundreds of geothermal (JEE-oh-THUR-mul) features that Rick studies in the Yellowstone area of Wyoming. (Geo means "earth," and thermal means "heat.") These "hot spots" form where melted rock deep in the Earth rises toward the surface. The rock heats water in the ground until . . . watch out! Hot water and steam may shoot high into the sky as a geyser. (Check page 20 to find out more about how geysers work.)
Great Gushes of Geysers
"Nearly three-quarters of the world's geysers are in Yellowstone," Rick explains. "This is the hottest, most active geyser area anywhere." For 20 years, Rick has been hiking all over the park to study these amazing hot spots.
Once he discovered a new fumarole (FUME-uh-roll). (A fumarole is like a geyser, except it's mostly steam.) When it blasted off, Rick felt the ground shake and saw trees whip back and forth. The fumarole's rushing steam roared in his ears like a jet engine.
Sometimes geysers die by blasting apart the earth around them. That's what happened to Porkchop, one of Rick's favorite geysers. (It was named for the shape of the pool that formed around it.) Porkchop gushed water and steam regularly for years. Then one day it blew rocks the size of TV sets into the air! After that, it stopped gushing.
Rick thinks Porkchop exploded because it got clogged. "Now it's just a quiet pool of steamy water--a hot spring," he says.
Winter Wildlife Spa
Rick often sees wild animals near geysers. In winter, the warm ground keeps snow from piling up, so bison, elk, and deer can find plants to eat. And hot water flowing into the Yellowstone River keeps it from freezing over. "That's good for the ducks, geese, and swans that need open water to survive," Rick explains.
Bears and other big creatures also live in the park. But Rick has never had any dangerous encounters. "The only animal that ever charged me was a bird--a sage grouse," Rick recalls. "It stomped its feet and chewed me out in grouse language," he chuckled. "I guess I got too close to its nest or something."
All in a Day's Work
Rick's job is risky because many hot spots are super-heated. That means they're hotter than boiling! Rick is always careful where he walks. If the crust around a vent broke, he could fall into scalding water or mud and get badly burned . . . or even worse.
"I've ruined lots of boots," Rick says, "and my sense of smell is shot too." These problems were caused by strong chemicals in the ground and air. But Rick thinks it may be better to have a lousy sense of smell when he's studying fumaroles. They often smell like rotten eggs. Pee-U!
Geysers in Trouble
Yellowstone's hot spots are sometimes destroyed by natural causes. Earthquakes, for example, can make underground water flow away from a hot spot. And geysers and hot springs may cool down, dry out, or pop up in new places.
Also, some folks just outside the park's boundaries want to pump out some of the region's hot water for their own use. But pumping out the water can cause problems too.
"Pools of underground water are usually connected," explains Rick. "Draining water from one place can take water from another. And without enough water, a geyser will stop spouting."
Another problem caused by people is litter. Sometimes careless visitors toss trash, coins, sticks, and rocks into the park's steamy pools. The litter can clog a vent, which can kill a geyser or hot spring. So Rick spends a lot of time scooping out litter.
What Good Are Geysers?
Yellowstone's geysers are great fun to watch. But they also give scientists important clues about what goes on below the Earth's surface. And many kinds of wildlife depend on them too.
With Rick's good work, Yellowstone's geysers, hot springs, and fumaroles should spout, bubble, and steam for years to come.
HOW GEYSERS WORK
A geyser has three important ingredients: heat, water, and a strong plumbing system. Here's how it all works:
* Melted rock deep in the Earth rises toward the surface (1). This heats surrounding rocks and underground channels of water.
* Water in the channels (2) becomes super-hot.
* Finally, the super-hot water rises and explodes into steam. This forces a spout of water and steam into the air (3).
* Underground water refills the channels and gets reheated. Then the cycle starts over again.