Is The Human Footprint Strangling Old Faithful In Yellowstone National Park?

Alternate Text
Is development in the Upper Geyser Basin of Yellowstone having an impact on Old Faithful?/Kurt Repanshek

We all go through growing pains as we get older, and that seems to be the case with the Old Faithful Geyser in Yellowstone National Park, as the geyser isn't as faithful as it once was and could eventually go dormant.

In just the past five decades, the geyser whose reliable gushers earned it its name, has slowed down. While Old Faithful in the 1960s erupted on an average of every 66 minutes, in 2013 the average was more than 90 minutes.

However, whether that decrease in reliability is natural, or has been caused by human development in Yellowstone's Upper Geyser Basin, is hard, if not impossible, to say. But construction projects in the past have directly impacted some thermal features in the basin, in some cases "catastrophically," according to a report on the basin's geothermal plumbing and human infrastructure.

Seeing an Old Faithful eruption is one of the main attractions of a Yellowstone vacation, and so word that those eruptions are becoming less timely can be disconcerting. Exactly why the eruption intervals have gotten longer in recent years is difficult to say, according to members of the Old Faithful Science Review Panel that was organized to look at geothermal issues and infrastructure in the Old Faithful area.

"Decreased groundwater pressure implies a longer recharge time for a geyser eruption. In the absence of actual groundwater monitoring wells, the only indicator of groundwater elevation or pressure is the flow of the Firehole and Madison rivers," the panel wrote in its report. "There is a correlation between Old Faithful's average annual eruption interval and varitions in the flow of the Madison River, suggesting that variations in the water table may be responsible. Similar correlations were found with the eruption intervals of Daisy Aurum, and Depressions geysers in the Upper Geyser Basin. Long-term precipitation and impacts on the local water table are almost certainly factors in the behavior of Old Faithful and other geysers."

While the scientists surmise that the total mass of water spouted every time Old Faithful erupts could be diminishing over the years, there have been no measurements of that output, "and it is difficult to evaluate long-term changes of Old Faithful without a complete understanding of the total water and heat budget of the eruptions."

Nevertheless, they say, the bottom line is that Old Faithful will not erupt indefinitely.

"Future projections of the average eruption intervals are not reliable. Because of the complexity of the natural system, it can be concluded that further changes and even cessation of Old Faithful eruptions are possible. Logs and stumps found buried in sinter on the geyser mound suggest that Old Faithful was completely inactive a few hundred years ago."

Of course, a new factor has been inserted into the landscape around Old Faithful in the past two centuries: humans. And their collective footprint on the park's Upper Geyser Basin could be having an effect on Old Faithful, the scientists say.

"For example, diversion of river water for consumptive use, paving for roads and parking lots, and the footprint of new buildings can decrease the amount of recharge into the groundwater system," they point out. "Trenches for sewage, electricity, gas, and other infrastructure can change the pathways for movement of heat and groundwater."

These impacts are not theoretical, the scientists note.

"There are places in Yellowstone National Park where park infrastructure has impacted hydrothermal features, in some cases catastrophically," they stress. "For example, in the 1960s, the excavation of the footing for the main support of the Old Faithful overpass intercepted very hot water that flowed at a rate of about 40-50 gallons per minute. Nearby hot springs simultaneously dried up. Stopping this discharge of thermal water and gas with a cement plug was considered and rejected because the plug might cause H2S-rich gas to accumulate under the plug, and then leak around its sides."

The gas then might react with water to create sulphuric acid, the story went on, which would eat away at both the bridge support and cement plug, until it failed.

While it's difficult at best to gauge what effects human infrastructure in the Upper Geyser Basin is having on the geothermal plumbing system, thermal imaging done in recent years "clearly shows that trenching has altered the natural surface temperature pattern in the Old Faithful developed area," the report notes.

Still, "at this time, scientific data do not exist that allow us to say with any degree of confidence that existing and past roads, parking lots, buildings, and subsurface infrastructure have, or have not, affected Old Faithful and other features in the Upper Geyser Basin.

Just the same, "Infrastructure and thermal ground don't easily coexist. Hot ground isn't good for buildings, roads and pipelines; conversely, parking lots and sewer lines disrupt the natural hydrology,” says USGS Geologist and Science Review Panel Co-Chair Jacob Lowenstern. “The popularity of Yellowstone is only increasing with time, so the park needs to consider means to minimize the human impact on both its cultural and natural resources."

To that point, Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk says the report "serves as a starting point for management of the most intensively visited location within Yellowstone National Park."

"There may be no place on Earth that presents the challenges where such iconic natural and cultural features are within such a short distance of each other," the superintendent adds.

You can find the report here.


It all comes down, once again, to how LITTLE we know about the planet upon which we live and how very easy it can be to cause irreparable damage as a result of that ignorance.
Or, it comes down to nature being in constant change and we don't have a thing to do with it.
That would be the ignorance that Lee mentioned.
Come on, ec, there are countless examples of how natural processes have been modified by human development. One only needs to think of the Colorado River as an example. Rick
Rick, if you read in certain scientific manuals, you will hear of people with no social or moral conscience, who are unable to perceive of the impact of their actions on others. It appears to be a careless disregard, but unfortunately, these people are UNABLE to perceive these matters. One can only be aware of them and try to minimize their effects upon yourself and others.
[quote]there are countless examples of how natural processes have been modified by human development [/quote] Perhaps temporarily but this ain't one of them. As the article says: "However, whether that decrease in reliability is natural, or has been caused by human development in Yellowstone's Upper Geyser Basin, is hard, if not impossible, to say."
Thanks, ec, for finally agreeing that I was right when I said that it all comes down, once again, to how LITTLE we know about the planet upon which we live and how very easy it can be to cause irreparable damage as a result of that ignorance.
I'm glad Yellowstone officials are taking the approach outlined by Rick Smith and Lee, and following the Precautionary Principle on this one.
Haven't agreed to anything Lee. Just let me know when you have the proof that humans and not natural processes are the cause of the changes at Old Faithful.
How about if you provide proof that they are not human caused? You advocate ignoring the possibility that the changes at Old Faithful may be due to human interference. You also continually try to convince us that other much more obvious human effects upon our planet should be ignored. Remember that the word "ignore" is the root of "ignorance." That says a lot.
Consider the history of the development at Old Faithful. That will tell you a lot. Note how the development sprawled after the introduction of the automobile; the point is: The development still panders to automobiles. There is far too much asphalt--too much disrupted surface area--regardless of what is happening to Old Faithful. The Upper Geyser Basin looks like Wal-Mart, not a national park. Contrast that with the restricted development in Zion. Cars are allowed in, but only for overnight guests. It works, and indeed, works superbly. We should doing that at Yellowstone, too. Take the shuttle in from West Yellowstone and leave your car behind. Too far? Only if you come to see Yellowstone in a hurry, and since when should any national park be pandering to that? It would also cut down on the needless deaths to wildlife. No more "hunting" bison with our SUVs. It will happen someday, probably when Old Faithful becomes Old Fizzle. We never learn until we lose something precious. At least at Zion we learned in time.
I agree. Old Faithful has become so severed from its natural surroundings, and recontextualized, that it looks like an ornamental fountain in the middle of a town.
[quote]How about if you provide proof that they are not human caused? [/quote] The typical losing argument - prove a negative. Perhaps I should ask you to prove it isn't caused by plastic water bottle bans. [quote] You advocate ignoring the possibility....[/quote] No I advocate finding out before jumping to that conclusion.
Oh, for pity's sake. Like most trolls, you demand proof of this or that, but refuse to deliver it yourself. It was a nice quiet weekend around here until you woke up again. You continually prove that you not only have no guilt or shame, but that you are incapable of perceiving it. It must be nice to be Mr. Perfect. At home do you at least get some "Hey, Mr. Perfect, pick up your dirty sox"?
[url=]Solitary Spring[/url] turning into Solitary Geyser

One of my favorites in the Upper Basin! (Solitary)

Famous last words, "We didn't think...." 100 years ago, people regularly threw things - coins, rocks, clothes, even soap - into geysers. They didn't think it would cause any problems. It did. 50 years ago, for the most part, throwing things into geysers was stopped; it took awhile, but human impact was noticed and corrected. As long as 50 years ago, it was noticed that road building and other construction had an impact on geysers and hot springs. At the time the roads were built, no one thought about their impacts. As they learned more, over time, they realized their mistakes. The great thing about humans is that they (most of them) are capable of learning. There are many things - events, actions - that took place in the past that are now looked at in disbelief: "What were they thinking?" For an interesting read, check out "Human Impacts on Geyser Basins" We might not have absolute, irrefutable proof that humans impact the environment in any way. But, we can move forward trying to minimize the potential impact we may have on the environment in the hopes that corrective action will not be necessary 50-100 years from now.

Thanks dahkota -

Well said ... and a good example of a comment that adds value to the discussion.

OMG - let's not leave our houses, we may have some impact on the environment. For that matter, lets not build houses. Lets go back to living in caves and hunting with spears for we wouldn't want to have any impact on the environment. There have been so many Chicken Little predictions of environmental disaster that have been nowhere near accurate. If we can show a real risk, then by all means work to fix it but I don't believe we should run from every potential risk imagined. Things were thrown in geysers not out of ignorance of the potential impact but out of indifference. Fortunately we have taken appropriate steps to limit that activity.
For Rick, In addition to the futility of trying to prove a negative, I don't offer "proof" because I never made a claim to prove. I merely offered an alternative conjecture. And no, I don't have shame or guilt. I leave that to those that cast aspersions rather than debate the issues.
Agree with Jim. Thanks for the link, comment, (and attempt to recover a meaningful conversation), dahkota.
Sara, Your piece on Solitary Spring raises some very interesting questions. If the water was returned to Solitary but it didn't go back to being a hot spring, might something else have caused it to turn to a geyser in the first place? Is a geyser preferred over a hot spring or vice versa? If man turns a hot spring into a geyser and simultaneously a geyser into a hot spring is he break even or negative two? If it is preferable to have a geyser is it bad for man to try to make one? If natural causes are making a geyser go away, would it be bad for man to try to stop those natural causes? Is not man part of nature and thus anything he does "natural"?
Yes, indifference. That same indifference to the needs of the natural world is also what created the problems in the Everglades. Or perhaps ignorance. But, neither is an excuse for poor stewardship. I hear of many people complaining of what we are leaving for the children, though they usually only refer to the monetary situation. I would ask those same people to consider the condition of the world in general, the natural world particularly, because that is also the legacy we impart to future generations. One can immediately jump to the extreme position, as some often do, "What, do you want us to go back to living in caves?" but that doesn't serve any purpose except to try to silence those who think that even basic care and attention can prevent problems (a stitch in time...). One doesn't have to "live in a cave" to reduce their environmental impact. That extremism also provides an excuse for those unwilling to compromise. The positions don't have to be extreme; there is value in moderation from both sides. We can, 50 years down the road, decide that, "yeah, we probably shouldn't have done that," but, correcting the problems now, when we know the potential impacts on future generations, would probably save a lot of work. As we come to learn the greater effects of what previous generations have ignorantly or indifferently done, we have the opportunity to not make the same mistakes.
[quote]correcting the problems now, when we know the potential impacts on future generations, would probably save a lot of work. [/quote] Yes "when we know"
Excellent, dahkota. Unfortunately there are too many deaf ears out there. There may be another equally valid synonym for "indifference" and for "ignorance." Could it involve some "stupidity" too if people insist on ignoring or being indifferent? Would these same people ignore a smoke alarm in their homes even if they could not see flames or smell smoke --- YET? Wait until smoke or flames show and it's already too late.


Thanks for keeping this open Kurt as I would enjoy seeing the responses to my on topic, thought provoking and totally civil questions to Sara (from anyone).
I don't get some of the posts on this thread. In every park I worked in, development has had profound effects on natural processes. To say otherwise or to claim that we have to wait "until we know more" is to simply ignore the obvious. Obviously, without some development, parks would be difficult, if not impossible, to visit. But we shouldn't kid ourselves into thinking that the development doesn't come with an environmental price. Rick

EC, the questions you pose to Sara (et al) likely will produce highly subjective answers. But they seem to beg a central question: Should humans sculpt landscapes for what they'd like to see, or refrain from actions that alter those landscapes?

Certainly, we alter landscapes across the world, but I would hope that in the national parks we would try as much as possible to preserve nature in its original form.

The impacts to Solitary Spring from trying to fill a swimming pool, the death of hot springs due to construction of the road overpass at Old Faithful, and the fact that thermal imaging done in recent years "clearly shows that trenching has altered the natural surface temperature pattern in the Old Faithful developed area," all are evidence that development of the Old Faithful area negatively impacts the thermal features.

The question going forward is will we keep those instances in mind as visitation pressures on the area increase? The authors of the report try to answer that by both citing the precautionary principle, and by suggesting a zoning approach to development.

[quote]we would try as much as possible to preserve nature in its original form.[/quote] Its original form or its natural process?
Can we please bring back the "Flaming log jam flying off bridal veil falls show" in Yosemite?? Somehow I missed that spectacle....Funny how us humans have a need to improve stuff??
[quote] Would these same people ignore a smoke alarm in their homes even if they could not see flames or smell smoke - [/quote] I'd look for the fire, I wouldn't turn on the sprinklers.
I agree totally with Rick Smith. We recognize that development of an infrastructure to promote tourism in parks will have some attendant impacts on the park ecosystem. The difficulty is providing hard scientific evidence of just what these impacts are, because the necessary baseline data is often absent. Also, as soon as there is an impact that is observable (and also statistically significant with respect to baseline conditions), it's very difficult to conclude with absolute certainty that the impact is directly due to a specific road, overpass, parking lot, concession facilities, etc. For this reason, it is usually prudent to set visitor use limits and development restrictions based on the precautionary principle. Unfortunately, given the importance of parks to local and regional economies, when such measures result in a perceived reduction in visitation and lost income to the concessioner and local businesses who depend on park tourism, actions to protect resources are often postponed administratively and politically into the distant future. When I worked in Yosemite in 1969, we had the definite expectation that eventually the General Master Plan for the park would propose elimination of the private automobile from Yosemite Valley. That plan was finally published in 1980, and it subsequently gathered dust for the next 34 years.
"I'd look for the fire, I wouldn't turn on the sprinklers." And, if you fail to find an obvious reason for the alarm, would you turn it off and go back to bed?
If I found no source of fire or smoke, absolutely. False alarms are almost as common as erroneous environmental predictions.
Well said, Owen. As Rick mentioned above, given our track record of permanently destroying natural processes, the precautionary principle is an important guideline to follow if one cares about otherwise preserving wild phenomena.
"We have a choice when we know land is sick. We can 'make believe that everything will turn out alright if Nature is left to take its course in our unhealthy wildernesses, or we can intervene – adaptively and with humility – to facilitate the healing process." ~ Aldo Leopold
Random Walker, thank you, Aldo Leopold stated a profound truth in my own humble opinion. You can drive through some of our small rural farm communities here in California and be told the water is not safe to drink due to chemical and pesticide pollution (just one example) and not think we should "intervene-adaptively and with humility-to facilitate the healing process".
Nice quote.
Here is a link to another interesting source of information. Also, while searching for an answer to how many acres of the geyser basin around Old Faithful have been covered by pavement or buildings, I found this link to a complete report of the geologic study that is cited in this Traveler article. It requires a lot of reading, but is extremely informative:,d.aWw If anyone can learn how many acres around the geyser have been paved and built upon, we could do some math and try to determine how many gallons of water will be diverted in a good rainstorm instead of infiltrating down to recharge the aquifer that feeds the geyser. It has to be an enormous amount of water that is being sent to some other destination rather than into the ground. Being unable to find the acreage covered by human construction in Old Faithful, I tried to compute the number of gallons of water that would be shed from just one acre of pavement or roofs of buildings. 1 acre = 6,272,591 square inches If a quarter inch of rain falls on that acre, we have: 6,272,591 x 0.25 = 1,568,147.75 cubic inches of water. One gallon contains 231 cubic inches, so: 1,568,147.75 / 231 = 6788.5 gallons of water from one acre. It's not at all difficult to understand how much water is being diverted by human facilities -- and how much water is no longer able to seep downward to recharge the thermal basin's supply. Average annual precipitation at Old Faithful is 24.43 inches of water including melted snow. Let's extend that amount flowing off our single acre of pavement: 24.43 x 6,272,591 = 153,239,398 / 143 = 1,071,604 gallons Just a conservative wild-eyed guess at covered acreage might be 10 acres (I'm sure it's a lot more), but that would mean 10,716,040 gallons are sent annually straight into the Firehole River instead of helping to refill the plumbing system beneath Old Faithful and its neighbors.
Here is a link to a news article about another "geyser" that has a lot of human-caused history. Ignorance abounds.