Things Stuffed Down Yellowstone's Geysers

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Drones. Couches, Handkerchiefs. Diapers. Pennies.

These are a few of the items that have landed in Yellowstone National Park’s incredibly fragile geysers and geothermal pools. Drones, however, seem to be the latest threat, as the illegal devices are still being flown in parks. What few understand is how destructive they can be to the awe-inspiring geothermal features.

Drone Crashed into Grand Prismatic Spring

Grand Prismatic Hot Spring and Drone. Spring photo by Jeff Vanuga

Grand Prismatic Hot Spring and Drone. Spring photo by Jeff Vanuga

When a drone crashed into the giant Grand Prismatic Spring in August 2014, it disappeared into the spring’s 121-foot-deep waters. The third largest hot spring in the world, the Grand Prismatic is known for its incredible colors caused by minerals and bacteria in the water. Scientists feared the missing drone, along with other items dropped into the park’s geothermal waters, would negatively impact the feature’s brilliant colors.

While the park service can retrieve trash from its pools, it’s no easy feat, especially since the geothermal waters can get as hot as 250 degrees Fahrenheit. Staff do use a long mechanical arm to pick up trash within a reachable distance.

The drone, flown by a tourist from the Netherlands named Theodorus Van Vilet, was never found, and so far, the famous pool remains colorful. The event did bring the topic of drone use in national parks to the top of environmental discussions. It is illegal to fly a drone in Yellowstone. A U.S. federal judge later ordered Van Vilet to pay $1,000 in fines and $2,200 in restitution.

Old Faithful as Laundromat

People standing at Old Faithful in the 1800's

Fishing foreign objects out of the park’s pools and geysers is as old as the park itself. In the late 1800s it is reported that Old Faithful served as a laundromat of sorts for explorers and infantryman. They reportedly placed soiled garments in a quiet geyser that were then ejected clean and warm. They left out woolens, which apparently didn’t handle the rough washing well.

Even without laundry to clean, visitors, park officials and scientists, used to throw soap and lye into pools to induce a geyser’s eruption. It was so commonplace that hotels and gift shops reportedly had trouble keeping soap stocked in the late 1880s, according to a 2009 study in Yellowstone Science.

Morning Glory Garbage Dump

A woman viewing Morning Glory Pool from the boardwalk

A woman viewing Morning Glory Pool from the boardwalk

Nowhere is the damage from people more apparent than in the once beautiful Morning Glory Pool, now referred to as “Fading Glory” or “Garbage Can,” because early visitors and vandals threw trash, coins, and even, reportedly, a couch into the baby blue water. Some also removed the delicate scalloped border for souvenirs.

When the water level was lowered in 1950 by siphoning, it induced the pool to erupt. Socks, bath towels, 76 handkerchiefs, $86.27 in pennies, $8.10 in other coins emerged. In all, park officials removed 112 different objects from Morning Glory.

Morning Glory is a particularly delicate pool as the blue hue is the result of thermophilic bacteria, a heat-seeking bacteria. As trash has settled at the bottom and sides of the pool, it has blocked vents from releasing their heat, preventing proper circulation. As a result, other microorganisms have infiltrated the pool, changing its delicate ecosystem and coloring. Today, orange and yellow rings encroach on the blue waters.

Morning Glory Pool in 1966 with brilliant blue color

Morning Glory Pool in 1966 with brilliant blue color

Morning Glory Pool in 2005 with diminished color

Morning Glory Pool in 2005 with diminished color.

More Damaged Geysers

Minute Geyser was so called because it erupted every 60 seconds, and up to 50 feet high. Early visitors clogged the larger vent by throwing rocks into the geyser. Today only the smaller vent erupts on an irregular schedule.

Traveling salesman were known to dip horseshoes and bottles into hot springs, allowing the limestone deposits common in mineral springs (a.k.a. travertine) to coat the objects creating unique souvenirs according to Yellowstone Science.

Other damage includes throwing logs into Ebony Geyser and Handkerchief Pool, clogging Abuse Spring and Thud Geyser with trash and objects by hotel employees.

So for the sake of these beautiful waters, keep your pennies in your pockets. And be careful as you walk in the park’s sensitive geothermal areas.

“Anytime you step off a boardwalk, you can disturb a very sensitive geothermal formation,” says Hank Heasler, Yellowstone’s chief geologist.


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