Researchers Take Calculated Risks Around Hazards

Tourists are most likely to get burned in Yellowstone's thermal areas when they stray off marked trails and boardwalks. But Yellowstone's geologists and other scientists also try to stay acutely alert to the dangers that lurk in the geysers, hot springs, and steam vents.
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Aerial view of Upper Geyser Basin. Photo by NPS Jim Peaco

Aerial view of Upper Geyser Basin. Photo by NPS Jim Peaco

National Park Service reports confirm that unwary summertime tourists are most likely to get burned in Yellowstone National Park's thermal areas when they stray off marked trails and boardwalks. But Yellowstone's geologists and other scientists also try to stay acutely alert to the dangers that lurk in the geysers, hot springs, and steam vents they spend their lives investigating.

Three years ago, one volunteer researcher suffered serious burns after accidentally stepping through the crust that overlies hot waters, notes Hank Heasler, the park's principle geologist. Mindful of the risks, Yellowstone scientists take some common-sense precautions before they venture into thermal areas.

For instance, researchers wear sturdy leather boots and natural wool socks whenever they're walking through geyser fields and hot springs. Lightweight synthetic footwear might be more comfortable, but the man-made material can also rapidly melt onto the skin if a foot breaks through into boiling water or scorching mud. As further protection, scientists also wear knee-high snow gaiters to protect their legs as well as water-resistant Gore Tex clothing.

Heasler says extra precautions are necessary when he and colleagues investigate steam vents. Shifting winds sometimes suddenly push scorching 280-degree Fahrenheit steam in unexpected directions, so researchers equip themselves with face shields and self-contained breathing apparatus to protect their skin and lungs. Researchers also carry infrared thermal sensors to warn against unexpected subsurface changes and highly sensitive meters to detect poisonous gases from thermal vents.

Researchers learn to be careful not to cross thin crust or grassy surfaces that can obscure boiling water. "You can think you're walking onto boggy grasses and break through into boiling water or acidic mud," he says. Researchers are also well aware that thermal pools and muds can be highly acidic, contain arsenic and mercury, and host unique microorganisms. "There are all sorts of critters that live in there that might want to live in us too," he says.

The best protection, Heasler believes, is to stay alert at all times and develop a finely tuned sense about when conditions are getting too dangerous. "If we're in a group and anybody starts feeling we shouldn't be there, then we retrace our steps" and leave the area, he says. "The key tool to take is an active brain."

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