Pattern formation and microbial ecology at Yellowstone National Park






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As the 3 million annual visitors to Yellowstone National Park can attest, the terraced architecture of Mammoth Hot Springs is one of the most striking and beautiful terrestrial landscapes.

Here is the view from the top of Mammoth Hot Springs, looking out over the Absaroka Mountains. In the center there is a large vent with steam rising from it, indicating the presence of water at about 70 degrees Centigrade. The water flows out of the vent downhill, and creates a terraced outcrop, formed from a type of limestone known as travertine. Unlike most geological situations, these rock structures are constantly being formed from the supersaturated spring water, so the landscape is dynamic and constantly changing. In fact, the minerals are laid down so rapidly by the spring water that the active parts of the outcrop grow at a rate of 1-5 mm per day.

Here is a closer look at the terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs. They form a nested cascade of ponds, apparently on many different length scales ranging from tens or hundreds of meters, down to millimeters. There are also unusual colorations in addition to the white of the limestone itself. These colors arise from the presence of a rich variety of microbes that inhabit the spring water, and thrive at the high temperatures and rather unusual chemistry of the system.

Our project, in collaboration with Bruce Fouke in the Department of Geology at UIUC and Alison Murray at the Desert Research Institute, seeks to understand the origin of the unusual landscape at geothermal hot springs: why is the landscape so characteristically architectured, and not just a pile of rock? What determines the size and shape of the features, such as ponds and terraces? What is the role of thermophilic microbes in the formation of these patterns?

In order to address these questions, we are forced to confront a host of scientific questions that are germane to a full understanding of the Earth's biosphere. How can we identify microorganisms, when most of those present in the wild have not been cultured? What can we deduce about their metabolisms? How does their metabolic activity affect and in turn is affected by the chemical processes of the environment? Our Yellowstone project is developing new techniques to address the problems, as well as providing insight into one of the most interesting and extreme environments on the Earth's surface.

Credits. The results reported on this web site were generated by Pak Yuen Chan, John Veysey and Nigel Goldenfeld, and rendered with assistance from Nicholas Guttenberg. We gratefully acknowledge the assistance of the National Park Service at Yellowstone National Park during this project.

A technical report about our simulation work is available online.

Based on research supported by the National Science Foundation Biocomplexity in the Environment Program, through grant number NSF-EAR-02-21743.  (c) 2006.  Nigel Goldenfeld, Pak Yuen Chan, Nicholas Guttenberg and John Veysey.  All rights reserved. 

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