Yellowstone thermal pool’s fluorescent colors coming from pollution, say scientists

MONTANA STATE UNIVERSITY, MONTANA – Yellowstone’s thermal pools that often take on yellow, blue, green, and even red colorings depending on the moment they’re being observed may finally have some scientific evidence to back up the theories around those colors. Scientists from Montana State University, as well as a group of researchers from Brandenburg University of Applied Sciences in Germany created and published a model that explains the colors observers see within the thermal pools.

Scientists say the ultimate cause of the florescent colors that observers see in the pools is related to pollution by humans. As it turns out, the study finds that the thermal pools were not the color they are today, many years ago. In fact, the researchers found that many of the colors onlookers see today is a direct result of pollution, like coins being thrown in for “good luck,” and that at one time – the waters in the pools were likely a dark blue.


Now, scientists haven’t been baffled by the colors – as in confused about how it happened per se. However, scientists have wondered about the extent of the process that took place. A professor at Montana State University pointed out that “What we were able to show is that you really don’t have to get terribly complex – you can explain some very beautiful things with relatively simple models.”

The team of researchers used a one-dimensional model for light propagation, and after that was able to reproduce exactly what was seen in those thermal pools that people travel from all around the world to see. One of the co-authors of the paper pointed out that “When we started the study, it was clear we were just doing it for fun,” but as the study progressed, it was clear in very short order that what the scientists were doing was going to be incredibly powerful information in the science world.

The other co-author though was very clear about what this will do for the future of biology on that front, and even eluded to some of the teams future plans for collaboration saying, “We started this project as experts on optical phenomena and imaging, and so we had a lot to learn. There are people at my university who are world experts in the biological side of what’s going on in the pools. They’re looking for ways to monitor changes in the biology – when the biology changes, that causes color changes – so we’re actually looking at possibilities of collaborating in the future.”

The research shows that even just going back as far as the 1940’s the pools – like Morning Glory – were likely a very dark blue. This shows just how much impact tourists had on the thermal springs over the years.


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