Scientists study Yellowstone geothermic hotspot

Geothermic Hotspots In (Yellow) and Near Yellowstone

Using satellite images taken by the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer, affectionately referred to as ASTER, Greg Vaughn of the U.S. Geological Survey can take the earth’s temperature in a designated area from hundreds of miles away. And he’s using that ability to predict volcanoes … or at least he hopes to.

Since 2004, Yellowstone National Park officials have been studying the thermal features around their park with the hope of predicting if and when the world’s most geothermically active area, namely their own backyard, might blow.

“This is technology and data that could be applied to any geothermal and volcanic areas around the world to monitor eruptions and maybe even predict volcanic activity,” Vaughn said. “Most volcanoes aren’t monitored until they erupt, and I want to get ahead of that.”

Before ASTER’s technology, scientists would have to gather data manually by taking the temperatures of hot pools, mud pots, and fumaroles. That method involved considerably more effort.

“(Taking data manually is) a difficult thing to do because Yellowstone is such a huge area,” Vaughn said. “It’s hard work, it’s time-consuming, and there are bears.”

The researchers use thermal imaging from space to monitor the Yellowstone region’s roughly 10,000 geothermal features. Vaughn and his team use images taken at night to prevent picking up heat reflected from rocks, pavement, roofs, etc. Although the feature temperatures are highly erratic, the researchers hope to pick up on a baseline pattern.

Yellowstone biologist Hank Heasler hopes that the data collection process can continue every year for the next two to five years. That wish might not come true, however, as ASTER’s vessel, the Terra satellite, was scheduled to come down seven years ago, and negotiations are still in place regarding whether or not Terra’s replacement will report the same type of data.