“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.
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. 🙂
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?
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.
33 thoughts on “Artistry Forged by Fire and Ice ~ Yellowstone Forever Field Seminar Series, Part II”
I have enjoyed these two posts, LuAnn. You learned a huge amount of geology this summer! I would love to take a course with Joshua sometime. I agree that is is a unique talent. I love how open you are to new experiences and ideas.
I find it challenging when I try to write about something as complex as this issue to not bore my readers who may not be as into the topic as I am. Joshua is a wonderful instructor and I am a prolific note-taker, as my journal would indicate, and I could have easily gone further down the rabbit hole. I didn’t think most people would want to know more about calcite ice other than the name. Next summer I would be up to having you drag my butt up some mountains. 🙂
Another wonderful geology lesson. Mammoth Hot Springs is such an interesting place. I love the photo of Palette Springs. Gorgeous! That was quite an assignment. Glad you understood it and passed the class:)
When Joshua first announced that their would be an assignment in order to get credit for the class, I immediately began to have test anxiety (haha)! It brought me back to my college days. 🙂
I so understand the test anxiety!!
Self-induced pressure for me. I was always one of those who overstudied.
Good for you to take on a course perhaps out of your usual learnings or interests. It seems extraordinary to me the rate of the growth from a geological standpoint. Beautiful photos as well albeit a bit different focus than most of your posts. Some diversity in learning is a great thing.
Thanks Sue! I loved all four of the naturalist courses I supported this past summer.
Keeping it alive. See you guys soon Frank
Sent from my Verizon, Samsung Galaxy smartphone
Looking forward to catching up Frank.
I love your opening quote! In your last post, I commented that the Norris Geyser Basin was my favorite when we were in Yellowstone….but now, looking at your gorgeous photos of Mammoth Terraces, I’m thinking this is my favorite. Truly, it’s all spectacular and magical. I didn’t realize that at one time people could soak in the pools there. What an experience that must have been! And that last photo of Joshua with the rattlesnake skin — that is a very, very cool photo. I’m wanting to return to Yellowstone….
Thanks Laurel! Both places are wonderful, more so for me now that Joshua has educated me. I know a couple who would love to go to Yellowstone with you. Lots of great hikes there! 🙂
I loved both of the geology lessons. Thanks! So many of the courses offered sound really interesting.
So if you hadn’t passed the course, would you have been fired? 😉
All the classes I supported were wonderful. As for not passing, I probably would have just not been given credit for that particular naturalist course. There were 4 naturalist courses this past summer, all of which I supported, as I want to obtain my Yellowstone Naturalist certification. I’m well on my way!
Good for you! Would you then be able to lead your own seminars?
No, but what I could do is assist NPS with projects they have within the park that fall within the naturalist purview.
What an amazing place. It reminds me very much of the Rotorua area of New Zealand. Have you been there?
Not yet Alison. We just watched a documentary on New Zealand last night and moved it up higher on the list. Guess whose blog I will be looking at for guidance? 🙂
Five weeks in NZ was one of our highlights! I’ve written a LOT of posts about it. Also we discovered 5 weeks is not enough Eight is better. We missed out on all the northern part of the North Island.
We like to stay as long as possible in a location, well as long as our budge will allow. 🙂
NZ is expensive 🙂
Yes I know. That is probably why we haven’t visited yet. 🙂
Wow! Really indepth learning experience…I would be in ‘hot water’, Ha!
We all were Gale! 🙂
I’ve always thought of art and science as existing independently of each other LuAnn, so your quotes and stunning photos have me doing some rethinking on the subject. I remember seeing Mammoth Hot Springs years ago but had forgotten how truly awe-inspiring the whole landscape is. And yes, there it’s easy to see how art and science intertwine. I’m enjoying your Yellowstone series and your geology lesson is much appreciated. Anita
Thanks Anita. I too had always separated art and science until taking this class, and reading Bruce’s book.
Your geology lessons are awesome! I belong to a rock Club here in AZ and our club Geologists would be impressed!
A rock club…how interesting Nancy!
It is soooo much fun. We went on a field trip just recently and collected Pink Tourmaline!
You should write a blog post about it!
Hmmmmmm!!! I just might!
Fabulous impressions, a great opening quote and an interesting tale.
Thanks so much Dina.