Posts filed under Yellowstone

A Tale of Fires and Ghost Logs - Fieldwork in Yellowstone Pt. 3

Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt
— John Muir

Adventure Tuesday

That summer of Dreams

A lot of different things happened during the summer of 2017. I went to Montana and Yellowstone not only once, but twice. I got to go to Puerto Rico for fieldwork and spent almost two weeks in the rain forest. I went on a roadtrip with dad through Badlands National Park, Beartooth Highway and then eventually through Yellowstone. We got married, well technically we were already, outside Butte on a fiery afternoon. After that we went camping with friends before we headed back towards Wisconsin. Once there we packed for yet another wedding and headed out to a summer camp. But what do we really do when I say fieldwork? If you have been reading my blog since it started way back when, you know I used to roam around in the interior of Alaska, studying fires, stream water chemistry, climate change and the list goes on. W also studies fires and we have helped each other doing field work through the years. So 2017 I spent part of my vacation by flying to Jackson, Wyoming to spend a couple of weeks with W and his advisors field crew.

The Start of the Large Fire Era

1988 one of the largest forest fires raged through Yellowstone National Park, and many people probably wondered if anything would be left after that large fire. 35% of Yellowstone National Park burned that summer, and that fire marked the beginning of a new era, the large fire era in the west. One of the many questions that fire overall poses in the north west, not only in the Rocky Mountains and Yellowstone, but also in Alaska is: What will happen if and when fires become so frequent that there is not enough time for trees to regenerate. The normal fire return interval is every 100-300 years, and the area we worked at in 2017 was burned in the 1988 fire and then again in 2016.

IMG_9810-May 30, 2016.jpg

I have seen burned areas in Alaska before, but nothing quite like the the area I saw that summer. Everything was basically gone. Everything was black. Even though we still could see vegetation already growing in the black soil. We counted tree seedlings (Douglas fir and Lodge pole pine) , downed wood, logs and ghost logs. Ghost logs are basically a line in the ground that indicates that a log once laid there, but has completely been burned up. Those logs were most likely leftover from the 1988 fires.

The ghost logs can be seen as the light lines in the black soil above

The ghost logs can be seen as the light lines in the black soil above

Fires in the Rocky Mountains and Alaska are very different. The fires we see in Yellowstone are mostly crown fires, while the fires in Alaska are mostly surface fires. In Alaska the thick organic layer, which also serves as an insulator to permafrost, is a good indicator for how intense the fire has been. Often there is still a large portion of the organic layer left after a fire has gone through, and you will also see this patchiness of the thick moss on the ground. One thing the fires in Alaska and the Rockies have in common though is that when it burns it burns, and it can spread extremely fast if the conditions are perfect.

Smoke in the field and the after math of fires in Alaska:

The ground was completely bare when we arrived at the Maple Fire in Yellowstone National Park. The temperature was in the 90’s and the black soil didn’t make it cooler. We used measuring tape and compass directions to set up sampling plots. Large portions of this fieldwork was to count how many tree seedling we could see growing in the bare soil, and we did see quite a few. We also recorded signs of ghost logs, tree stumps and dead standing trees within all the plots. This work is sometimes hard on you, it’s hot, you’re on your knees and you are also high up in elevation. On top of that you have to hike, sometimes also carrying heavy equipment. You’ll get sunburned real easy and have to make sure you carry and drink enough water.

The Maple Fire in the Cougar Meadow:

Many tree species are evolutionary adapted to regenerate after fire, they produce cones that are serotinous, because the cones need heat to open up and release its seeds. But to regenerate the tree needs energy, and time to develop enough seeds, and on top of that they need to be lucky. Anyone who has planted a seed probably know that sometimes the seed germinate, and sometimes it doesn’t. This is the reason why this questions is so relevant, how successful are coniferous trees to regenerate throughout the Rockies and Alaska if the fire return interval gets shorter? The other problem is the local climate. Will it become drier or wetter, how warm will it get? These are factors that also play a role in the tree regeneration.

Through Active Ancient Land

Adventure Tuesday

Yellowstone National Park - Winter Edition

Mammoth Hot springs

Since we always enter from the northern entrance, by the small town of Gardiner, we get access to the most northern part of the park in the wintertime. Though you can’t get to Old Faithful with the car, you can get to Mammoth Hot Springs. If you can’t go to Yellowstone at all, you can always tune in to one of the many webcams that the national park service provide. There are several covering the northern part, and one of them can be found by the Mammoth Hot Springs. Precipitation (both rain and snow) that falls on the surrounding mountains slowly makes its way down through the soil and continues deep belowground. Eventually the water is heated up before it finally sees daylight again when it leaves the deeper soil and is forced upward and creates the Mammoth Hot Springs.

Colors, Art and Science

It’s pretty cool to see the art that constantly forms with the combination of hot steam and cold air. Snow and ice surrounding the hot springs makes for the perfect art formation. The hot springs at Mammoth are one of the most accessible hot springs in Yellowstone National Park. They are just a few miles from the entrance in Gardiner which makes for an easy excursion. The bedrock underlying Mammoth Hot Springs mainly consist of limestone. When the deep water slowly makes its way upwards it has formed carbonic acid (due to the carbon dioxide that the water has collected belowground) which dissolves the limestone and forms calcium carbonate. When the calcium carbonate finally reach the surface it is deposited and forms travertine which is the rock that forms all the terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs.

Freezing Temperatures and Changing Colors

The hot springs constantly change and that is one of the greatest things about them. Either the flow of the water changes dues to freezing temperatures, or tectonic changes belowground triggers the water to change its route and sometimes even its temperature and other characteristics. Some of the hot springs even dry out for several decades, before they start to flow again. There have also been times when the hot springs flow has increased so much that the boardwalk gets under water. If you can time your excursion through the hot springs with some sunset or sunrise you should. The colors of the sky will reflect in the hot springs, and that is always amazing to see. It will be a completely different experience compared to the daytime excursion. The color of the hot springs themselves, blue, orange and green are caused by differences in temperatures and pH which allow for different bacteria to thrive and live there. Another good thing about freezing temperatures, other than all the art that is created, is that a lot fewer people will venture out at all. If its 10 or 20 below no one will be here.

The Terraces

Mammoth hot springs consist of two levels, the lower and upper terrace. Small parts of the area is wheelchair accessible, but to get to the upper terrace you either have to walk up some stairs, or access it from a different road, which I think is closed in the wintertime. Either way, if you are able to walk around you definitely should check out all the different springs at both the lower and upper terrace. You might see less of the different hot springs after a big dump of snow, so that might not be super fun. The photos below are all from the upper terrace level. All the photos above is sort of a mixture of all the different springs on both the upper and lower level.

Have you ever seen Mammoth Hot Springs in the wintertime?

Christmas Skiing on Open Plains and through Herds of Bison

Adventure Tuesday

Yellowstone National Park - Winter Edition

Skiing Blacktail Plateau

When we ski, we usually go to Blacktail Plateau. It’s only a one way, so out and back or if you carpool you can go just one way, but it is really beautiful. You have large views of the landscape from here and you can also spot herds of bison or elk along this route. In the summertime this road (Blacktail Plateau Drive) is also really pretty to drive, it’s one of many side roads you can drive in the park to get out of the tourist jam. The first time we skied there, W and I were deep in conversation and came around a corner to a herd of bison. We got so scared, and so did them. They ran off down the slope. A baby bison started to bluff charge us, luckily the older bison had no interest in us. Bison sometimes move fast across the landscape, browsing on what they can find underneath the snow, so it’s always a good idea to keep an eye out in what direction they are moving.


Through Valleys and over Hills

If you are lucky enough fresh snow and newly groomed trails will meet you when you arrive. But either way I love skiing here. You will get such a different view of the park if you go by skis. Not only of the wild animals, but also all the mountains and the deep forests in the distance. We almost never run into any people. Finding a parking spot can be hard depending on what end of the Blacktail Plateau Drive you start at. We have been pretty lucky so far and always managed to squeeze in somewhere. I love being able to ski in Yellowstone, you’ll get such an amazing feeling of freedom. And to top that off you will always see a bison or two munching away in the distance.

Northeast Yellowstone - A Place to Ski?

The exit at the northeast part of Yellowstone National Park is called the Silver Gate. It is right on the border between Montana and Wyoming. When you leave Yellowstone through this exit you’ll first drive through the mountains, and once you leave the park you can embark on the trip up in elevation, towards the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness and the Beartooth Highway. The little town right outside the Silver Gate, Cook City, reminds me about the small towns you’ll see in the narrow valley along the Seward Highway towards Homer and all other places down in southeast Alaska. Obviously the Beartooth Highway is closed during the wintertime, because it sits high in elevation (10,947 ft). I have not explored the ski trails in northeast Yellowstone, and I would love to do that in the future. Northeast Yellowstone has these beautiful and large coniferous trees and draped by the mountains right next to the road, and just imagine skiing in there! That would be a dreamlike winter wonderland.

Have you been skiing in any of the National Parks in the world?