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article imageNASA's Landsat finds problems under Yellowstone's Old Faithful

By Nancy Houser     Dec 8, 2011 in Science
Yellowstone National Park - NASA's Landsat satellites have been tracking Yellowstone's underground geothermal activity, a deep heat that is stored 4,000 miles into the earth's core. But there are areas where these energy levels are becoming erratic. Old Faithful could be in trouble.
The Landsat Program is jointly managed by NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey, beginning its services of remote sensing in 1972. It became part of the Yellowstone National Park's new monitoring plan in 2005. In addition to remote sensing, Landsat also uses airborne reconnaissance in order to "observe geothermal changes across all of Yellowstone in a systematic and scientific manner." (NASA)
Up until recently, the heat coming from Yellowstone's underground magma chamber has always been the fuel for over 10,000 of the volcano's features: Old faithful, hot springs, geysers, mud spots, terraces and mud pots. But NASA is reporting that the Landsat imagery has picked up some unexpected developments outside the park's borders, also picked up by energy companies beyond the park's borders.
"If that geothermal development outside of the park begins, we need to know whether that's going to cause Old Faithful to suddenly stop spewing," says Rick Lawrence of Montana State University.
The park had funded a study on the unexpected geothermal activity, looking for a new perspective on the developing event. The results will be presented in San Francisco, Calif., on Friday, Dec 9, 2011, at the American Geophysical Union conference. Visible light and heat-sensitive Landsat data channels were used in the study by Lawrence and his co-author, Shannon Savage.
To get a better view of what was going on in Yellowstone, the Landsat satellites imagery were used in the study because it was circling above the area at 438 miles, getting a much better view of the entire area. Additionally, the satellites had several decades of data they could use to observe the land's surface and its heat energy.
Minerva Terrace and Spring  part of Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park.
Minerva Terrace and Spring, part of Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park.
NASA/National Park Service
What makes Yellowstone unique is that the energy Landsat is able to pick up includes not only the heat that has been absorbed through the sun, but also the geothermal energy the earth produces by itself. The satellite's imagery found that one of the geothermal spots, Minerva Terraces, collapsed when the hot bubbling water beneath it stopped flowing. The images that were observed from 1998 to 1999 showed that correlation of the heat and energy in the area.
About the time this was going on, one individual happened to see a geothermal explosion occur, causing rocks to fly everywhere. But in areas where it was supposed to remain hot, the temperature actually went down temporarily before coming back up. (PhysOrg)
The Landsat satellite allows the scientists to recognize big changes occurring in the geothermal area, like Yellowstone. However, nobody knows what is happening or where due to the satellite's large pixel size in its imagery. But clues are being found regarding the interconnection of the underground geothermal events. The goal is to obtain higher resolution in future thermal data. NASA's next Landsat satellite, the Landsat Data Continuity Mission, will have a new thermal instrument on it for use in 2013 to add to Yellowstone's geothermal record.
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