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Geyser activity spews decades-old trash



By Jessianne Castle EBS Contributor

LIVINGSTON – Typically when a geyser erupts, onlookers rejoice at the cascade of thermal water. But when Ear Spring erupted on Sept. 15, more than steam and vapor came billowing from the vent.

Among the items found after the eruption were park signs from the ’70s, a pacifier dated to the 1930s, and a piece of science equipment suspected to have been used to collect water samples and accidently dropped into the geyser many years ago.

In a rare display—the spring hasn’t erupted to such a height since 1957—water spewed 20 to 30 feet in the air, bringing with it 50- to 100-year old trash and debris.

Rebecca Roland, a ranger at the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center, was one of the first park personnel at the scene, arriving roughly 10 minutes after the event. “As I got there, I noticed that Ear Spring itself was empty and garbage was just strewn everywhere,” she said during a Facebook Live event on Oct. 31. “The amount of runoff was huge and some of the stuff it spit out was pretty old.”

These items, mostly thought to have been thrown into the spring prior to the 1970s, were collected and catalogued as a part of the collection at the Yellowstone Heritage and Research Center in order to tell the story of the park’s past.

“Stuff like this can tell us a story and the history of how people were, unfortunately, using the spring while they were visiting it,” said Coleen Curry, the curator of the Yellowstone Heritage and Research Center. Despite the fact that many items were thrown in as trash, she added that “We try to document [visitor use] through tangible objects.”

Among the artifacts were signs and cinder blocks, which were violently thrown approximately 6 feet from the spring, as well as smaller items such as coins, Polaroid film packs and cans.

“Sometimes the smallest items can help tell the biggest stories,” said park archeologist Beth Horton, pointing to three small items laid out on a table. They comprised a flash motif that likely broke off from a toy, a token from the NAMCO amusement and game company, and a pacifier from the ’30s that, “probably one young child was very sad to have … dropped,” Horton added.

Ear Spring sits within the Upper Geyser Basin, where most of the thermal features are alkaline. According to Roland, Ear Spring has a neutral pH of between 6 and 6.5 with a temperature of approximately 190 F, which allowed for the preservation of most of the items.

“Metals and other materials don’t normally dissolve in near neutral pH. They just sit in hot water for a long time,” she explained. “I think that the exception is copper.”

The Ear Spring eruption is one of several unusual events on Geyser Hill in recent weeks, including new vents and surface fractures and a new thermal feature that resulted in the closure of a boardwalk. However, officials say this activity is not cause for alarm.

“We’ve always had that hot water right below the crust,” Roland said, adding that water levels are high right now. “It doesn’t have anything to do with movement of magma or the Yellowstone volcano—none of that. It’s mostly just the movement of hot water as it moves back and forth. Hydrothermal features and hydrothermal flows can move around.”

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