GEYSER GAZING DOWN UNDER

New Zealand’s thermal features put Yellowstone in perspective

2012-11-04T00:05:00Z 2012-12-23T09:16:03Z New Zealand’s thermal features put Yellowstone in perspectiveBy PAT BELLINGHAUSEN pbelling@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Yellowstone National Park has the world’s largest concentration of geysers — more than half of all geysers on the planet.

A century ago, New Zealand claimed the world’s second-largest geyser group. Not anymore.

New Zealand is breathtakingly beautiful and vividly green. Vineyards, vegetable farms, forests, sheep and dairy cows cover the rolling North Island, which is framed by sandy beaches and the clear, blue Pacific Ocean.

The Rotoura area holds most of the island’s thermal features. The tourist town has pipes that carry hot water from natural thermal features to heat buildings. South of the city, a large hydrothermal plant generates power.

When I read about the Rotorua geyser that erupts at 10:15 every morning, I knew this was something I wouldn’t see in Yellowstone. Around 100 visitors paid admission and gathered the morning I awaited Lady Knox Geyser. Shortly after 10, a staff member for Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland walked up to the geyser cone with a sack about the size of 4 pounds of sugar. He told his audience how a prison work crew long ago discovered that the geyser would erupt if laundry soap was poured in. The sudsy routine eventually became a tourist attraction. To make the water and steam plume rise higher, the cone was built up a bit over the years. Then the speaker dumped in the sack of soap. The geyser soon steamed to a 60-foot plume.

The rest of Wai-O-Tapu was a fascinating 75-minute walk among colorful pools and hot pots burping mud. The largest hot spring, called the Champagne Pool, is 200 feet deep and bubbles carbon dioxide.

Wai-O-Tapu, which means “sacred waters” in the Maori language, is administered by the New Zealand Department of Conservation.

While Lady Knox erupts on schedule, 46 geysers in New Zealand have gone extinct because of geothermal wells, according to researchers. Further south on the North Island, 89 geysers became extinct when flooded by a reservoir. The government ordered closure of many geothermal wells in the city of Rotorua in 1986, but geysers didn’t recover.

“The only way to insure the natural playing of geysers is to prohibit all geothermal wells from the hydrothermal reservoir,” Kenneth A. Barrick of the University of Alaska Fairbanks wrote in a 2010 article published by Environmental Management. Rotura was one of several examples that Barrick cited in making a case for permanently protecting Yellowstone’s geysers.

Although the 2.2 million-acre park is off limits to hydrothermal development, Yellowstone’s thermal features are connected to subterranean aquifers extending far beyond the park boundaries.

“Wyoming, Montana and Idaho do a lot to protect Yellowstone geysers,” said Hank Heasler, YNP geologist. Montana monitors ground wells in a 1,300-square-mile area north and west of the park to ensure that they don’t impact thermal features.

The Island Park area west of the park in Idaho is a known geothermal area and no geothermal leasing is permitted there.

“The states are doing an admirable job protecting the resource,” Heasler said. “The reason the park was founded as the first national park in 1872 was because of the hydrothermal features.”

Yellowstone wouldn’t be Yellowstone without its explosive geysers and deep, blue, boiling pools.

About 940 geysers survive on Earth -- 30 in New Zealand and 500 in Yellowstone, where they have been preserved for the amazement of visitors for 140 years.

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