Some Like it Hot: An Interview With Yellowstone National Park's Geyser Guru, Mike Keller
Editor's note: Mike Keller has studied Yellowstone National Park’s thermal features and volcanic underworld since high school, and when he’s not busy directing operations for the park’s concessioner, he spends most of his free time geyser gazing.
As the president of the Geyser Observation and Study Association, Mr. Keller possesses both an extreme passion and an extensive knowledge about all things geothermal. He recently sat down with Traveler contributor Beth Pratt to explain his interest in geyser gazing.
Traveler: You first started volunteering in the park at age 14. What was it like as a teenager being in Norris Geyser Basin?
Mr. Keller: Looking back I am amazed I even had the opportunity to do it. I am so grateful to (the late) Rick Hutchinson and Peter Allen for their help, not to mention my mother for shuttling me back and forth from Livingston on a weekly basis until I could drive myself. I remember being told, “you are doing something pretty special.” Given the choice of being a volunteer at Norris or working at Taco Johns or Dairy Queen, I thought the decision was pretty easy.
Traveler: Why do you think it's important to study geysers?
Mr. Keller: Geysers are few and far between on this planet, and as people are forced to explore other options (wind, water, and geothermal to name a few) for fuel, many geyser basins have been altered or destroyed by drilling or the creation of dams for hydroelectric power, reducing the opportunity to study them. The activity in Yellowstone is special in that it holds the largest concentrated collection of geysers—most of them found along the Firehole River—and it has remained untapped. Some scientists believe that geyser activity can be used to help monitor changes taking place in a region, and possibly assist in understanding and anticipating activity from an area’s volcano.
Also geyser basins are not unlike other specialized micro-climates that are host to a number of unique animals and plants. By removing the geothermal activity, everything that was dependent on the heat and/or water source is permanently affected.
Traveler: What do you consider the most unusual geothermal feature in the park?
Mr. Keller: Cinder Pool at Norris Geyser Basin. The unique circumstances taking place to even allow for a feature like this to exist is amazing—a black pool of superheated beads of sulfur crackling as they coalesce at the surface.
Traveler You are one of the lucky few that have seen a major eruption of Steamboat Geyser. What was it like?
Mr. Keller: I was still a teenager volunteering when it erupted on September 26, 1984. I was at Norris taking data on Whirligig and Constant Geysers in the Porcelain Basin. Suddenly there was a column of muddy grey water, sticks, and rocks being thrown into the air.
The sheer power was impressive, with 10- and 20-pound rocks tossed as high as 50 feet. When the water phase first turned to steam it was unlike anything I had ever witnessed in Yellowstone. I stood about 80 feet from the vent and the person beside me could barely understand me even though I was yelling as loud as I could. The deep bass noise coming from the vent actually hurt my ears, but I didn’t care. The hillside above Steamboat, all the way to the parking lot, was covered in mud, rocks, and sticks, and several cars in the parking lot were coated in mud and silt. Truly an amazing experience!
Traveler: What other geysers are next on your "life list” to see erupt?
Mr. Keller: For Yellowstone it has to be a full-sized 300+ foot eruption from Excelsior Geyser. This hasn’t happened since 1888.
Traveler: What is the saddest example you’ve seen of how human activity in Yellowstone has impacted the geothermal activity?
Mr. Keller: The greatest negative impacts from people took place pre-1920 when many thermal features were vandalized and had large amounts of their mineral deposition removed or collected as souvenirs. At the same time, when roads were being constructed some features were literally buried or diverted so that a road or bridge could pass by. A few features (Solitary Geyser, Spectacle Geyser, Abuse Spring) were drilled into so the water could be tapped for use.
Traveler: You've been involved in many clean-up and restoration projects with the geothermal features in Yellowstone. What are some of your best success stories?
Mr. Keller: The "most vandalized" feature we cleaned out was Blue Star Spring in the Upper Geyser Basin, followed by Morning Glory Pool. In the long run Morning Glory would surpass anything else, but I didn't really start working on it until toward the end of my years at Old Faithful.
Another success story would be Crown Spring in the Lower Geyser Basin. In the late 1880s this spring was described as being located immediately on the bank of the Firehole River, about 4 feet in depth, and lined with a sintered crown-like formation of deposition. Sometime between the 1940s and mid-1980s fishermen and visitors vandalized this feature, filling it with rocks and sticks to the point the entire vent was blocked and the feature diminished to a shallow depression in the ground.
In the summer of 1992 we spent three days on the restoration of Crown Spring, removing all of the items that had been placed into the vent. At times, the debris was neatly and deliberately layered in the vent. Someone in the past did a very methodical job of lining and filling the basin of this feature. In the end we were able to clean out about 90 percent of the debris from the vent and today Crown Spring is full of water and overflowing into the nearby Firehole River. I am hopeful someday it will be able to restore its sinter rim and resemble the feature it once was before it was vandalized.
Traveler: If someone had time to see only one geothermal feature in Yellowstone, which one would you pick?
Mr. Keller: That is a tough question. There are so many unique features in Yellowstone and no two are alike. In order to get a quick sample of everything Yellowstone has to offer I would recommend the Fountain Paint Pots. This ¾ mile walk allows visitors to see hot springs, geysers, fumaroles, and mud volcanoes from a close but safe distance.
Traveler: Yellowstone’s supervolcano became a celebrity with the release of 2012. Did you like the movie?
Mr. Keller: It was humorous. Not nearly as “camp” as the Supervolcano movie the BBC made a few years ago, but in line with it.
Traveler: So, is 2012 the date the supervolcano will erupt?
Mr. Keller: If you listen to some in the scientific community they will tell you we are past due and it could happen any time. I doubt it will happen in the next several thousand years. While we do have periods of seismic activity and there is evidence the volcano is alive and well, I don’t believe there is nearly enough activity right now to indicate it’s ready to go. Look around the world prior to major volcanic activity and the seismic events and physical changes taking place were pronounced. If we start having 5.0 to 8.0 earthquakes daily or weekly around here, I may change my mind. Until then, I’ll keep living in or next to one of the greatest geological places on this planet!
Mike’s Top Ten Geothermal Features in Yellowstone
1-Giant Geyser with Mastiff Geyser-Upper Geyser Basin
2-Kaleidoscope Geyser-Lower Geyser Basin
3-Steamboat Geyser-Norris Geyser Basin
4-Morning Geyser-Lower Geyser Basin
5-Splendid Geyser with Daisy Geyser-Upper Geyser Basin
6- Deep Blue Geyser-Lower Geyser Basin
7-“Collapse” Geyser-Lower Geyser Basin
8-Bear Den Geyser-Norris Geyser Basin
9-Rainbow Hot Springs-Hot Spring Basin
10-Upper Group-Lewis Lake Hot Springs