National Parks Hydrothermal Energy Impact


In this photo of Grand Prismatic Spring, the steam from the hot water rises into the air in front of the mountain. I walked along the raised boardwalk as I enjoyed the view. The steam blows towards the camera when a gust of wind comes.

Arielle Purcell, Reporter

National parks have been a part of America for over 150 years. The first national park established in the U.S. was Yellowstone, and it was established in 1872 by President Ulysses S. Grant. These pieces of land have always been a place for people to enjoy nature and get away from their everyday lives, but they’re not just for our benefit. National parks preserve parts of the country by keeping species safe and preventing development of the land. 


National parks are the perfect idea to keep beautiful parts of the U.S. safe. However, some don’t see it that way. 


This summer, I was in the Western Winds Summer Marching Band. One of the places we marched in was Cody, Wyoming on the Fourth of July. After the parade, my family picked me up and we made our way west to Yellowstone National Park. As we started to enter Yellowstone, we occasionally saw gray steam on the side of the road. It was the heat from the hot springs rising up into the air.


This heat is exactly what could be used for hydrothermal renewable energy. That may seem like an amazing idea, but there are downsides, too. Drilling for this kind of energy in a national park would disrupt the peace and natural beauty of the park.


Once we entered Yellowstone, the first thing we stopped at was a beautiful, unique waterfall. It was very shallow, only a few inches deep. It also fell on an extremely gradual slope. The water had many little whitecaps as it fell over hundreds of rocks on the way to the bottom. My family and I sat beside it for a little bit while we stopped to eat sandwiches for lunch. Mine was ham and cheese.


After we ate, we moved along down the road, seeing wildlife every once in a while. It was mostly birds and groundhogs, and sometimes deer. We kept our eyes peeled for anything exciting like a moose or bear. We’d been driving for a while when the traffic began to slow. Up ahead, we could see about 10 cars slowing down and stopping. We were all excited. Stopped cars in a national park usually only meant one thing: wildlife. I rolled my window down and tried to look ahead through the tall trees to see what everyone was looking at. My brother complained. He said it was too cold to have the window down, but I disagreed and didn’t roll it up.


As we slowly got closer, I hadn’t seen anything yet. Everyone was looking out their right windows, like me. My mom, who was sitting in the passenger seat, rolled down her window, too. There were a few people holding their phones out their windows to take pictures. I followed where the cameras were pointing and, at the same time as my dad, saw something big and black move. We both pointed it out to my mom and brother, but it was behind a bush now.


Seconds later, it came back out and everyone was excited. The cars were slowly moving forward now. Some people in the front had been here long enough and taken enough photos to move on. A few cars began to pile up behind us, no doubt trying to find what everyone else was looking at. As I watched the little black bear, I wondered how hydrothermal energy would affect it. 


Hydrothermal energy is much better for the environment than burning fossil fuels, which is the main source of pollution in the world today. After doing some research, I learned about subsidence. Subsidence is when the land begins to sink or lower in a specific spot. It is caused by the removal of underground things like rock or liquids. When they are removed, the ground sinks to fill in the holes. Subsidence could greatly affect the animals’ habitats.


I was curious about geothermal energy in Yellowstone. I thought that geothermal energy was what could be taken from this national park. However, when I interviewed Dr. Kent Sundell, the geology instructor at Casper College, I learned that hydrothermal energy is actually what exists in Yellowstone. He explained that “Yellowstone is a hydrothermal system because the heat that’s being generated to produce the hot water in the hot springs is based in a magma chamber at depth underneath Yellowstone. Geothermal is just using the natural heat of the earth in that it’s much hotter in the core. And then we have what we call a heat gradient that comes from the core, and the earth is emitting heat all the time from heat being formed in the core.” I thought that this was very interesting because I had always thought of Yellowstone as geothermal. 


Although this energy source seemed like a great new source of renewable energy, there had to be a catch, right? If they were taking energy from the earth, it would probably decrease the flow to the hot springs. As I continued to research, I learned that this was true. It is possible that hydrothermal drilling could decrease the hot springs in Yellowstone. 


When this subject came up in Dr. Sundell’s interview, he told me something that I hadn’t heard before. He told me that while it could affect those features in certain places, if you choose the right spot it would actually be okay.


Dr. Sundell said, “That system is orders of magnitude, millions of times greater than man could ever effect. We could take heat off of it and it’s not going to affect whether it’s ever going to erupt again.” He continued by saying, “You have to understand the geyser system and the geyser basins and selectively put your wells where you think you would get the most benefit, but at the same time, you can drill the wells, monitor the geysers, and if you see that there is an effect, just shut the well off.”


This was really interesting to me. I was under the impression that humans would take too much energy and stop the flow of energy to the hot springs. It made me rethink some things. If the park could be nearly unaffected by humans drilling into it for a clean energy source, was it really a good idea after all?


Back on my Yellowstone trip, we stopped at a geyser-filled area with a wooden boardwalk that seemed a little bit sketchy. As we walked through, we could feel the heat each time we stopped to look at a hot spring pool. They were beautiful. Most of them were crystal clear and had vibrant colors. They reminded me of the color of tropical waters and I wanted to jump in and swim, but I knew it was much too hot for that. Along the path, we walked past a lake in which there were little geysers near the surface. In the middle of the lake we could see kayakers led by a guide across the water. I wished I could join them. 


While looking across the lake and walking past the pools, I started to think about what it would be like if I was enjoying the park and suddenly saw the big equipment needed for hydrothermal drilling. I think it would ruin the mood of the park. The whole point of going to a national park is to get away from the man-made structures and enjoy the nature that many don’t get to see very often. Putting this equipment in the park sounded like a strange idea to me.


As I walked through the crowds along the sketchy-looking boardwalk, I thought about what Dr. Sundell said. He said that if they got power from somewhere and it ended up affecting a nearby geyser, they could move it somewhere else. But would they? It is very important to protect the national parks and keep the hot springs and I wondered if the hydrothermal companies would value this as much as they needed to. 


After our last geyser stop, it was getting dark. We started our search for a hotel because my family loves to procrastinate and waits until the last minute for everything. We drove west as the sun sunk below the horizon, forming an amazing colorful sunset. I had my window down for a while as my mom gave my dad directions to a town called West Yellowstone. I watched the trees go by and noticed a few of the first stars peeking through the sky. 


When we made it to our hotel at around 9 o’clock, fireworks began to go off. The Fourth of July was starting. Fireworks of all different shapes and colors filled the sky as we watched from the parking lot next to other hotel guests. As I watched, I knew that hydrothermal energy in Yellowstone wouldn’t be happening anytime soon, but if it ever did, I hoped that the beautiful Yellowstone national park I had just spent the day in would get to stay just as amazing as it has always been.