Yellowstone’s beautiful thermal springs didn’t always look like they do today.

Researchers from Montana State University and Branden University of Applied Sciences in Germany created a mathematical model that shows how the color of Yellowstone’s incredible springs have changed over time.

The basic science behind the beautiful colors seen at these hot springs is understood. But, no mathematical formula exists to show how different variables affect optical factors. That changes with this new formula.

“What we were able to show is that you really don’t have to get terribly complex – you can explain some very beautiful things with relatively simple models,” said Joseph Shaw, a professor at Montana State University and director of the university’s Optical Technology Center. Shaw was also a co-author on the new paper.

In the hot, summer months of 2012, the researchers travelled to Yellowstone National park with spectrometers, cameras, and infrared thermal cameras in hand. They took measurements at notable Yellowstone pools including Morning Glory Pool, Sapphire Pool and Grand Prismatic Spring.

Morning Glory Pool

Morning Glory Pool in 1965

With this data, researchers created a mathematical model. The researchers were impressed with how similar the renderings from the model looked to actual photographs.

How We Change Color in Yellowstone’s Thermal Springs

Researchers were able to simulate how Morning Glory Pool looked in the past. Today’s colors of the pool are vastly different to how it looked from late 1800s and early 1900s. Back then, temperatures were significantly higher. Today’s greens and bright yellows used to be a dark, deep blue.

Why the change in colors over the past several decades?

A press release from The Optical Society reads:

An accumulation of coins, trash and rocks over the intervening decades has partially obscured the underwater vent, lowering the pool’s overall temperature and shifting its appearance to a terrace of orange-yellow-green. This change from blue was demonstrated to result from the change in composition of the microbial mats, as a result of the lower water temperature.

That’s right, we played a part in changing the colors of Yellowstone’s thermal springs.

Next time you venture to Yellowstone, try to remember that what you throw in the pools has an affect.

Image credits: Joseph Shaw, Montana State University; NPS, William S Keller

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