Posted by: Kirsten | Sunday, 13 April 2008

Hats Off to Yellowstone’s Volunteers!

Some of you may remember an earlier article I posted showing one of many hats that wound up in one of the thermal features at Yellowstone National Park last summer.  Anyone else who’s been there likely knows how a sudden gust of wind can quickly take back that souvenir hat you just bought at the last village you recently visited.  Well, that article prompted a nice reply from Ranger Beth at Yellowstone who sent my son and me some detailed information about how the park goes about extracting those hats and other objects that get “misplaced” in the thermal features at Yellowstone.  It’s a very interesting behind-the-scenes look at how much work is required by park staff and volunteers to keep we the visitors from loving our parks to death through bad luck, negligence, or simple overuse.  Read on, and be sure to thank any volunteer you see performing such work at Yellowstone, or picking up trash at your local NPS area.  And consider doing your part by not making more work for others and volunteering your family’s time perhaps one day a year to help make our National Parks a better place!

From Ranger Beth Taylor at Yellowstone Nat’l Park:

After reading your son’s idea about hats that blow into the features, I wanted to share with your son how we attempt to remove objects from thermal pools. Resource management staff (mostly volunteers!) spend hundreds of hours removing debris—mostly rocks, sticks, coins and trash—-from the thermal features each year. They use extra-long handled “grabber” tools similar to those you might see maintenance or janitorial staff use to pick up trash without having to bend over (but ours have longer handles/poles). They also use a ‘highly specialized’ tool consisting of a slotted spoon attached to a long pole. The long handles allow them to stand a safe distance from the feature to avoid getting burned or damaging the thermal feature.

To remove a hat, we’d use the grabber tool, but to remove a rock thrown into a pool, we might choose to use the slotted spoon attached to the pole. We can remove 50 hats in a typical summer week! You are both probably aware that items thrown into features (or blown into features) can damage them. They can be cemented in place by mineral deposits and block the flow of hot water. Some features have become cooler and changed color (due to the change or death in microbe communities) because of trash and coins tossed in them.

[Below is] a document that includes a picture of one of our dedicated volunteers removing debris from a hot spring near Old Faithful in the Upper Geyser Basin. While it is illegal for visitors to leave the boardwalks in the geyser basins, this volunteer has many years of experience and is one of the few people who can be trusted to leave the safety of the boardwalks without putting himself in danger or damaging features.


Geothermal Protection and Safety (2005)

Yellowstone is the world’s first National Park, and is well-known for its spectacular array of waterfalls, lakes, and its animals. However, Yellowstone owes its status not to these alone, but to the vast array of hydrothermal features (geysers, hot springs, mudpots, and fumaroles) that have amazed and fascinated visitors for over a century. Yellowstone is one of the world’s largest active volcanoes where magma from deep in the earth lies just a few miles below the surface rather than the dozens of miles under most continental masses. This volcanic heat has powered large volcanic eruptions in the past, and now provides the heat source for Yellowstone’s collection of hydrothermal features, the largest such array of geysers and hot springs on earth.

Yellowstone has an estimated 10,000 thermal features, hundreds of which are near trails, roads, or boardwalks. The geysers are spectacular and have eruptions ranging in size from a few inches to hundreds of feet. The hot springs range from warm seeps to superheated boiling pools. Both geysers and hot springs are often surrounded by delicately beaded deposits and are often brightly colored by mats of thermophilic, or heat-loving, micro–organisms.

The thermal features that inspired Yellowstone’s creation are beautiful, fragile, and dangerous. The beauty can be marred or destroyed by human intrusion, be it walking off of the established paths or boardwalks, throwing objects into the pools, or marking in the microbial mats. The delicate formations around geysers and hot springs take hundreds of years to form, but can be destroyed in a few minutes by souvenir seekers or careless footsteps. Microbial mats are soft and easily disturbed.

Protection of Yellowstone’s unique hydrothermal environment from the three million visitors that come each year is an important part of the Park’s work. Extensive boardwalk systems help visitors enjoy the thermal features in safety and without damaging the fragile systems. Visitor education via Park newspapers, Ranger Interpreter programs, and wayside exhibits explain the nature of the thermal areas and encourage visitors to remain safe and to help protect the fragile surroundings.

NPS Foto - YELLThe boardwalks that provide access also protect the fragile vegetation, mineral deposits, and microbial mats from being trampled by visitors seeking to get a closer look. Resource management personnel spend hundreds of hours each year cleaning debris from around and inside of the thermal pools and vents. Each year resource management volunteers remove thousands of coins, rocks, sticks, and other debris, mostly introduced by humans, from thermal features. If these objects remain in hot springs and geysers, they can be cemented in place by mineral deposits and block the flow of hot water.

In 2004, four resource management volunteers spent over 500 hours cleaning the Upper, Midway, and Lower Geyser Basins alone. In regular summer weekly cleaning 273 coins, nearly 1300 rocks, 48 large sticks and logs, and 50 hats were recovered from in or around thermal features. Over 400 rocks were removed from Artemisia Geyser alone. The photo below shows some of the rocks in the Artemisia Geyser catch basins. The red-brown rocks are rhyolite rocks that were thrown into the pool.NPS Foto - YELL

Additionally, in spring and fall more extensive cleaning, nearly 3500 coins were recovered. Of these, 2785 coins came from Morning Glory Pool alone!

In addition to being fragile, Yellowstone’s hot springs and geysers are dangerous to humans. Water temperatures in some hot springs are above the boiling point (199°F at Old Faithful), and many springs are hot enough to cause serious burns rapidly. A second degree burn causes blistering, and a third degree burn burns all the skin layers. Thermal burns have killed many more people in Yellowstone than have wild animals. Over the years, twenty people have died in Yellowstone’s hot springs, compared to five killed by bears and two by bison! None of the fatalities happened to people staying on boardwalks or trails.

Walking in thermal areas in the backcountry is dangerous, especially so since the dangers are not familiar to most people, even experienced wilderness hikers. In some places, hot springs have thin shelves of sinter (the white mineral deposited by most of Yellowstone’s hot springs) extending over some very hot water. Approaching closely can cause a fatal plunge into the water. In acidic areas there may not be visible water, but hot mud can be crusted over and even support some vegetation. Many experienced hikers have been burned by stepping onto solid-appearing ground and sinking several inches or more into hot, sticky mud.

When hiking in the backcountry be extremely careful in thermal areas to avoid painful or fatal burns, and equally importantly to avoid leaving footprints, smashing delicate formations, or otherwise damaging Yellowstone’s unique formations. Yellowstone is one of a handful of places on Earth with geysers and high-temperature hot springs. Yellowstone has more geysers than any other place, and most of them have been protected from damage and remain a fascinating and ever-changing natural display of natural geological processes.


  1. Reblogged this on Faith Deblistered and commented:
    Why in the heck do people throw coins in something that’s NOT a bonafide wishing well, if there such thing as a bonafide wishing well. Just keep that mess at your local theme park and quit throwing coins in natural springs and waterways. Wow!

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