Yellowstone thermal features produce unexpectedly high amounts of helium

2014-02-19T16:48:00Z 2014-02-20T15:34:07Z Yellowstone thermal features produce unexpectedly high amounts of heliumBy RUFFIN PREVOST The Billings Gazette
February 19, 2014 4:48 pm  • 

Scenic vistas, abundant wildlife and now, new research shows there's yet another uplifting reason to visit Yellowstone National Park.

Scientists studying the thermal features in Yellowstone have found that a surprisingly high amount of helium escapes every day through vents, pools and other cracks in the earth's crust.

Before the volcanic hotspot beneath Yellowstone became active some 2.1 million years ago, the Earth's crust above the park was calm and undisturbed for hundreds of millions of years. During that time, radioactive elements decayed, producing helium that had nowhere to go.

But for the last 2 million years — a relatively short period of time in geological terms — the thermal activity around Yellowstone has facilitated the release of lighter-than-air helium at rates that "exceed by orders of magnitude any conceivable rate of generation within the crust," according to a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

Jacob Lowenstern, scientist-in-charge of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory, was the lead author of the study, which found that helium is escaping from Yellowstone thermal areas at rates hundreds or even thousands of times greater than would be expected.

The study concluded that helium, produced mainly through the decay of uranium and thorium, had been accumulating for "at least hundreds of millions of years" in the Earth's crust beneath Yellowstone.

Until the "recent" volcanic activity over the last 2.1 million years, inert and ancient rocks called craton were believed to be dormant under Yellowstone for as much as 2.5 billion years.

As the Yellowstone hotspot has warped the earth's crust, that helium has come floating out.

Researchers discovered what they describe as the "prodigious degassing" as part of a study that gathered gas samples around thermal areas in an effort to better understand the processes at work in Yellowstone's volcanic system. Simple tools like funnels attached to hoses were used to gather and record emitted gasses.

While most people are familiar with helium because of party balloons or blimps, the gas is used as an important coolant by researchers and high-tech industries. It's also used as a tracer element by researchers to date groundwater and track the timing of large-scale geological processes.

Global helium prices have risen steadily in recent years as the gas has been in short supply. The U.S. has maintained a Federal Helium Reserve since the 1920s, when the gas was considered an important strategic component for airships. It was a key element for researchers during the space race of the mid-20th century.

Because Yellowstone is a national park, gathering the helium for commercial use is not allowed, but such a process would likely be economically impractical anyway.

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