Yellowstone thermal features produce unexpectedly high amounts of helium

Researchers collect gas samples form a fumarole in Yellowstone National Park as part of a study aimed at learning more about the processes at work beneath the park's thermal features.

Jacob Lowenstern / USGS

Researchers collect gas samples form a fumarole in Yellowstone National Park as part of a study aimed at learning more about the processes at work beneath the park's thermal features.

Scenic vistas, abundant wildlife, and now, new research shows there’s yet another uplifting reason to visit Yellowstone National Park. Scientists studying the thermal features in Yellowstone have found that a surprisingly high amount of helium escapes every day through vents, pools and other cracks in the earth’s crust.

Before the volcanic hotspot beneath Yellowstone became active some 2.1 million years ago, the earth’s crust above the park was calm and undisturbed for hundreds of millions of years. During that time, elements decayed, producing helium that had nowhere to go.

But for the last 2 million years—a relatively short period of time in geological terms—the thermal activity around Yellowstone has facilitated the release of lighter-than-air helium at rates that “exceed by orders of magnitude any conceivable rate of generation within the crust,” according to a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

Jacob Lowenstern, scientist-in-charge of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory, was the lead author of the study, which found that helium is escaping from Yellowstone thermal areas at rates hundreds or even thousands of times greater than would be expected.

The study concluded that helium, produced mainly through the decay of uranium and thorium, had been accumulating for “at least hundreds of millions of years” in the earth’s crust beneath Yellowstone.

Until the “recent” volcanic activity over the last 2.1 million years, inert and ancient rocks called craton were believed to be dormant under Yellowstone for as much as 2.5 billion years.

A funnel placed over a pool at Shoshone Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park gathers gas samples as part of a study to learn more about the processes that drive the park's thermal features.

Jacob Lowenstern / USGS

A funnel placed over a pool at Shoshone Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park gathers gas samples as part of a study to learn more about the processes that drive the park's thermal features.

As the Yellowstone hotspot has warped the earth’s crust, that helium has come floating out.

Researchers discovered what they describe as the “prodigious degassing” as part of a study that gathered gas samples around thermal areas in an effort to better understand the processes at work in Yellowstone’s volcanic system. Simple tools like funnels attached to hoses were used to gather and record emitted gasses.

While most people are familiar with helium because of party balloons or blimps, the gas is used as an important coolant by researchers and high-tech industries. It’s also used as a tracer element by researchers to date groundwater and track the timing of large-scale geological processes.

Global helium prices have risen steadily in recent years as the gas has been in short supply. The U.S. has maintained a Federal Helium Reserve since the 1920s, when the gas was considered an important strategic component for airships. It was a key element for researchers during the space race of the mid-20th century.

Because Yellowstone is a national park, gathering the helium for commercial use is not allowed, but such a process would likely be economically impractical anyway.

Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9818 or ruffin@yellowstonegate.com.

2 thoughts on “Yellowstone thermal features produce unexpectedly high amounts of helium

  1. THE WHOLE EARTH AT ONE TIME HAD A UNIFORM TEMPERATURE AND CLIMATE

    The Bible in Genesis 1:6 teaches that there was water above the sky. This condition doesn’t exist today because that water fell upon the earth during the great Noahic flood.

    The water above the sky would have had a greenhouse effect so that the temperature around the globe would have been uniform and tropical, even at the North and South poles.

    During the time of the Genesis flood, the Bible describes that the water above the sky fell and great amounts of water from under the earth broke through the surface. The violent combination of these forces produced the fossil layers and great canyons.

    Because there was no longer the thermal protection from waters that existed above the sky, the Polar Regions became instantly frozen. There are frozen mammoths discovered with undigested food still in their stomachs. Obviously, these great creatures were frozen instantly.

    Please read my popular Internet article, ARE FOSSILS REALLY MILLIONS OF YEARS OLD? Evolutionary dating methods are not infallible and far from accurate.

    Check out my popular Internet site, THE SCIENCE SUPPORTING CREATION

    Sincerely,
    Babu G. Ranganathan*
    (B.A. Bible/Biology)

    Author of the popular Internet article, TRADITIONAL DOCTRINE OF HELL EVOLVED FROM GREEK ROOTS

    *I have given successful lectures (with question and answer period afterwards) defending creation before evolutionist science faculty and students at various colleges and universities. I’ve been privileged to be recognized in the 24th edition of Marquis “Who’s Who in The East” for my writings on religion and science.

  2. As an undergraduate geologist I am trying to keep up to date on any new earth changes that are in progress in the park area – Thank you – Galen.