The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) plans to fly an electromagnetic ring over Yellowstone later this month in order to map the park’s underground plumbing.
This is part of a new initiative in which researchers from the USGS, the University of Wyoming, and Denmark’s Aarhus University will study the flow of hot water through Yellowstone’s various geysers.
To do this, the team will spend a month flying a hoop-shaped electromagnetic system over Yellowstone. The device will map out the area’s underground hydrothermal channels and allow researchers to look beneath the Earth without having to dig. In this way, the ring — which can map water up to 1,500 feet below the surface — works like an X-ray except that it maps water flow instead of bones.
Though researchers have been monitoring Yellowstone for decades, little is known about the hot water flow paths that run beneath the surface. This project could provide new information about those streams and help scientists build a comprehensive map of the park. This could then shed light on Yellowstone’s irregular hydrothermal explosions, The Christian Science Monitor reports.
Though rare, hydrothermal explosions are very powerful and can cause large shifts in the landscape. For example, an eruption that occurred 13,800 years ago created a mile-wide crater at the bottom of Yellowstone Lake. The team believes that if they can better understand the way hot water flows through the park they could better plan for such explosions.
“Nobody knows anything about the flow paths,” said lead scientist Carol Finn, a researcher with the U.S. Geological Survey, according to CBS News. “Does it travel down and back up? Does it travel laterally?”
Despite the mystery surrounding water flow, scientists know a lot about the volcanic mechanisms within Yellowstone. In March, geologists identified the size and location of many past eruptions that took place near the park’s most thermally active areas. They found that a series of blasts rocked the Snake River Plain between 8 and 12 million years ago. In addition, past research from seismologists at the University of Utah uncovered a 30-mile-wide magma chamber beneath the park’s surface.
The team hopes that a better understanding of the hydrothermal plumbing will give them a way to plan future development. Building away from volatile areas could keep tourists out of harm’s way and make sure certain key features in the park are not damaged.