Figure 3. Yellowstone contains more than 11,000 thermal features and perhaps as many as 500 historically documented geysers, more than any other geothermal region in the world. there are at least 100 thermal areas in the park, with geysers documented in 9 of them.
Washburn became the first white men to “discover” the Upper Geyser Basin and Old Faithful. In 1871, Congress funded the first official government expedition, which was led by Ferdi- nand Hayden, head of the U.S. Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories. Hayden had the foresight to invite artist Thomas Moran and photographer William Henry Jack- son, who provided the first visual representations of the Yellow- stone region. Hayden’s scientific observations and catalogues, combined with Jackson and Moran’s artwork, inspired Con- gress to set aside Yellowstone as the world’s first national park in 1872. The creation of the park to protect the unique thermal features within its boundaries also protected it from the direct large-scale geothermal energy development that later altered or destroyed the natural activity of many of the world’s large geyser basins. It is now known that Yellowstone contains more than 11,000 thermal features (Rodman, pers. comm., 2008) and as many as 300 to 500 historically documented geysers (Heasler, pers. Comm.. 2008), more than any other geothermal region in the world. Data supplied by the Yellowstone Center for Resources’ Spatial Analysis Center show approximately 100 thermal areas within the park (Fig. 3), nine of which are known to contain geysers. These data do not include the numerous thermal features beneath Yellowstone Lake.
There is remarkable diversity within and among the nine geyser basins. For example, Norris Geyser Basin has evidence of the oldest thermal activity in Yellowstone, dating back at least 12,000 and possibly up to 150,000 years. It is also home to
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Steamboat Geyser, currently the tallest geyser in the world, and Black Growler fumarole, which holds the record for the highest surface temperature recorded in the park (138°C) (White et al. 1988). The Upper Geyser Basin is home to Old Faithful, which may be the most well-known geyser in the world and certainly in the U.S. It is also thought to contain up to 200 other geysers, more than any other single geyser basin in Yellowstone and perhaps the world (Bryan 1995).
Six of Yellowstone’s geyser basins (Norris, Gibbon, West Thumb, Lower, Upper, and Midway geyser basins) are devel- oped for mainstream tourism with easy access by roads and trails. The Lone Star, Shoshone, and Heart Lake basins are only accessible via backcountry travel. The congressional act of drawing a line around a piece of land unknowingly protected Yellowstone’s thermal features from large-scale geothermal resource development, but exposed them to tourism-related impacts. With up to three million visitors per year, the struggle between protecting Yellowstone’s thermal features while allow- ing access for public enjoyment is constant.
Human Impacts toYellowstone’s Geyser Basins
Human impacts in Yellowstone’s geyser basins are those that have resulted from tourism in the park. The following examples, which include historical accounts of alteration to individual geothermal features, are intended to provide a basis for understanding potential impacts in other geothermal loca- tions, not a complete listing of all features that have been dam- aged in Yellowstone. Future geothermal development just out- side the park poses a potential threat to Yellowstone’s thermal features and is also discussed.
Impacts from ourism
Vandalism, as we now consider it, has been a problem since the first park visitors, employees, and researchers arrived. Although the 1872 Yellowstone National Park Act reserved two million acres “as a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” there were no institu- tional structures in place for managing the park. Park visitation was low at first (approximately 500 per year until 1896), but acts of vandalism were pronounced enough that Superinten- dent Nathaniel Langford’s assistant remarked in 1873 that “the parapets of sinter surrounding the ‘Castle’ and ‘Old Faithful’ and the ‘Bee Hive’ [geysers] have been much defaced by visitors to the park” (Bartlett 1985). Souvenir hunters broke up geyser formations and carved their names in thermal features, damage that still occurs today (Magoc 1999). The high demand for Yellowstone souvenirs inspired entrepreneurs to put horseshoes and bottles in hot spring formations so they would become encrusted with travertine.
Both visitors and park officials attempted to induce erup- tions by throwing soap down geyser vents, a practice that is thought to have originated at Chinaman Spring in the Upper