Artistry Forged by Fire and Ice ~ Yellowstone Forever Field Seminar Series, Part II

“There are two kinds of truths:  the truth that lights the way and the truth that warms the heart.  The first of these is science, and the second is art.  Neither is independent of the other or more important than the other….The truth of art keeps science from becoming inhuman, and the truth of science keeps art from becoming ridiculous.”  ~  Raymond Thornton Chandler

Day 2 of the Yellowstone Forever Field Seminar “Observing Thermal Biology and Geology” took us to Mammoth Hot Springs, where art and the world of science collide.  Brace yourself for another geology lesson. 🙂

The geology at Mammoth Hot Springs, aka Mammoth Terraces, is older than that at Norris Geyser Basin, and without the “rotten egg” smell of hydrogen sulfide found in many of the thermal features throughout the park. Non-existent at Norris, limestone, a soft sedimentary rock with a high calcite mineral content, is found in abundance near Mammoth Hot Springs.  It is soluble in water and weak acid solution, dissolving into calcium carbonate, also known as travertine.  And it is travertine that has molded Mammoth Hot Springs in a big way.

Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces

Travertine is deposited here at the Mammoth Terraces faster than anywhere else on earth, at a rate of 5 mm per day or 7 feet per year.  Mammoth Hot Springs today would have looked far different to those early visitors to the park who actually climbed onto the Terraces to soak in these waters, seeking relief for their physical ailments.  In fact, travertine is being deposited at such a rapid rate that unstable rock formations have been created that often collapse under their own weight.  It is not surprising that no one is allowed onto these Terraces anymore.

As our class stood looking out over Palette Springs, found at the Mammoth Terraces, we were asked to describe what we were looking at.  I couldn’t help but feel like I had stepped onto another planet.  Almost devoid of trees, except for those left standing as ancient silent sentinels, this sculpted, terraced alabaster mountain loomed over me, capped by a dazzling cerulean sky.  Water cascaded over the edges in rivulets, and a patchwork of orange, gold, and green graced the sides and base, thanks to the work of a myriad of microbes.

Palette Springs at Mammoth Terraces. The large egg-shaped boulder on the left is Devil’s Thumb.

As at Norris Geyser Basin, microbes have created these intriguing formations.  This is how cellular life began on our planet, with microbes swimming in hot spring environments.  I have read that roughly 60% of all life on our planet is microbial, most buried deep below the soil we walk on.

Bruce Fouke, geobiologist who recently authored the book “The Art of Yellowstone Science – Mammoth Hot Springs as a Window on the Universe”, along with the help of professional photographer Tom Murphy, believes that it takes the blending of art and science to unravel the mysteries of hydrothermal features such as Mammoth Hot Springs.

Canary Springs majestically stands above the Mammoth Upper Terraces.  The white and gray travertine are older deposits.

He has said that “the water temperature, chemistry and flow at Mammoth are similar to that found on the early Earth, and the hot springs still harbor microbial life that evolved billions of years ago.”  And he should know, as he has studied this park since 1996, doing research for NASA and now through his own foundation.  He had the good fortune to meet Tom Murphy in 2008, whose photographic passion since 1975 has been in telling Yellowstone’s story in breathtaking images.  And I was fortunate to meet Tom Murphy and attend a slideshow presentation of his work several years ago, as well as listen to Bruce Fouke speak this past summer on his studies at Mammoth Hot Springs.  As volunteers we were given a copy of his new book, which I am in the process of finishing…a fascinating read.

“Daily it is forced home on the mind of the geologist that nothing, not even the wind that blows, is so unstable as the level of the crust of this Earth.”  ~  Charles Darwin

There are several boardwalks surrounding both the upper and lower Terraces.  As we wandered those walkways during our class, Joshua broke down the creation of these terraces, what we were seeing above ground, and what was most likely occurring below the surface as well.  To say he bolstered the elasticity of my brain matter these two days was an understatement. 🙂

Our fearless leader Joshua challenged us to participate in active observation.

When we arrived at the Upper Terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs, our naturalist assignment was made clear to us – find a pattern in color or structure and attempt to determine the microorganism involved and why the area we selected looks unlike others around it.  Huh?

This is the pool I studied for my assignment. The milky substance that floats upon the surface, then later sinks, is calcite ice.

Armed with an infrared thermometer gun, pH strips, a book identifying the characteristics of specific microbes, and a journal, we went to work. Suffice to say, this assignment challenged me, but it was a great exercise in looking beyond the surface and making observations, something we often don’t take the time to do.  And, I passed the class!

If you love the national parks and would love to learn more, check out the Yellowstone Forever Field Seminar catalog. There is something for everyone who has a passion for the natural world.

Disclaimer:  The views expressed here are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of Yellowstone Forever.  

“Humanity’s quest for a sustainable existence will define our present and future place in the universe.  The art and science of Mammoth Hot Springs provides an unexpectedly insightful vantage point from which to envision this future.”  ~ Bruce W. Fouke & Tom Murphy

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