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Geophysical imaging of the Yellowstone hydrothermal plumbing system

Abstract

The nature of Yellowstone National Park’s plumbing system linking deep thermal fluids to its legendary thermal features is virtually unknown. The prevailing concepts of Yellowstone hydrology and chemistry are that fluids reside in reservoirs with unknown geometries, flow laterally from distal sources and emerge at the edges of lava flows1,2,3,4. Here we present a high-resolution synoptic view of pathways of the Yellowstone hydrothermal system derived from electrical resistivity and magnetic susceptibility models of airborne geophysical data5,6. Groundwater and thermal fluids containing appreciable total dissolved solids significantly reduce resistivities of porous volcanic rocks and are differentiated by their resistivity signatures7. Clay sequences mapped in thermal areas8,9 and boreholes10 typically form at depths of less than 1,000  metres over fault-controlled thermal fluid and/or gas conduits11,12,13,14. We show that most thermal features are located above high-flux conduits along buried faults capped with clay that has low resistivity and low susceptibility. Shallow subhorizontal pathways feed groundwater into basins that mixes with thermal fluids from vertical conduits. These mixed fluids emerge at the surface, controlled by surficial permeability, and flow outwards along deeper brecciated layers. These outflows, continuing between the geyser basins, mix with local groundwater and thermal fluids to produce the observed geochemical signatures. Our high-fidelity images inform geochemical and groundwater models for hydrothermal systems worldwide.

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Fig. 1: Grey-shade Digital Elevation Model overlain by a simplified geologic map of our study area in YNP.
Fig. 2: Cross sections from 1D resistivity (top of panel) and 3D susceptibility inverted models (bottom of panel) along selected profiles (locations in Fig. 1).
Fig. 3: Plan view from resistivity and susceptibility inversions.

Data availability

The electromagnetic data5 and models23 and magnetic6 data are freely available.

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Acknowledgements

We thank B. Minsley for generating Extended Data Fig. 1 and S. Hurwitz and P. Gardner for suggestions that improved this paper. This work was supported by the US Geological Survey Mineral and Energy Resources and Volcanic Hazards Programs, NSF grant no. EPS-1208909 and the University of Wyoming Office of Research and Economic Development. This work was carried out when one of the co-authors, E.A., was a professor in geophysics at Aarhus University. Any use of trade, firm or product names is for descriptive purposes and does not imply endorsement by the US Government.

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C.A.F., P.A.B., W.S.H. and E.A. initiated the study and designed the AEM survey. C.A.F. modelled the magnetic data. P.A.B. and J.C. modelled the AEM data. C.A.F. and P.A.B. developed the interpretation with contributions from W.S.H., E.A., B.R.B. and J.C. C.A.F. wrote the bulk of the paper with P.A.B., W.S.H. and E.A. contributing.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Carol A. Finn.

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Nature thanks William Gardner, Steven Constable and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work. Peer reviewer reports are available.

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Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Fig. 1 Graph of bulk resistivity depending on porosity21,53,54,55 and fluid conductivity26,37.

The stars represent the maximums of measured porosity values21,53,54,55, the highest values of fluid conductivities of groundwater and typical values for thermal fluids. The colors indicate the bulk resistivity values expected in our models (Figs. 2 and 3a) for given porosities and conductivities.

Extended Data Table 1 AEM inversion parameters

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Finn, C.A., Bedrosian, P.A., Holbrook, W.S. et al. Geophysical imaging of the Yellowstone hydrothermal plumbing system. Nature 603, 643–647 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-021-04379-1

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