Yellowstone Helium: More Ancient Gas Escaping Than Thought

Thursday, 20 Feb 2014 08:54 AM

By Michael Mullins

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Ancient helium from Yellowstone National Park’s geysers is being emitted at a significantly greater rate than previously thought.

Researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey determined that the national park was releasing hundreds — if not thousands — of times more helium than previously thought, the Los Angeles Times reported.

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In the study, which was published Wednesday in the journal Nature, researchers found that the helium amounted to about 60 tons per year.

"We had sort of an 'Aha' moment where we realized, wow, that there's a lot of crustal helium coming out of Yellowstone — far more than we would have predicted," The study's lead author, Jacob Lowenstern, a research geologist with the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory, told National Public Radio.

According to Lowenstern, the helium gas, which had been stored in the Earth’s crust for up to 2.5 billion years, was collected by researchers using simple tools like plastic funnels, tubes and probes stuck in the ground.

In the study, researchers found that the helium was primarily produced by the decay of uranium and thorium in the crust below Yellowstone.

"It's a part of the crust that formed a very long time ago, billions of years ago, and it's basically been stable since that time," Bill Evans of the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, Calif., told National Public Radio.

According to Evans, the gas is being pushed up by a plate that is now moving over a hotspot located deep beneath the earth's surface.

"Think of it this way: You have these old crustal rocks just sitting around for hundreds of millions, perhaps billions of years," Evans told the Los Angeles Times in a separate interview. "They have this boring little existence, and then suddenly somebody puts the heat on under them and they start giving up all their long-held secrets."

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