Sunday, August 23, 2009

burning in the Yellowstone caldera

After finally pulling ourselves away from animal watching in the Lamar Valley, we fell into the tourist-dominated landscape that is Yellowstone's caldera. The land here sits over an enormous supervolcano, a mass of burning magma sitting so close to the surface that it effects the world above in a myriad of ways.

The landscape here is vaguely similar to that of the very early earth, when the entire planet was burning much more brightly overall. Since then, it has been slowly cooling as time passes; similarly to how our metabolisms slow as we age. Like the Earth, as well as the universe, we burn less and less brilliantly as time moves along. The second law of thermodynamics - which states simply that all aspects of the universe are subject to increasing entropy - is what eventually inevitably puts out our flame.

We saw the remnants of our former superheated world in the form of scalding hot springs, bubbling cauldrons of mud, steaming sulfuric vents and a wild variety of geysers. The most bewildering aspect of this death-world was the prismatic color in the hot springs. Some are a astonishing white-blue, some algae-like putrid green, some burnt orange, and most were often a combination of these hues.

I learned that each color was the result of a certain organism that lived in a particular temperature range within the spring. Surprisingly, the white-blue, often associated as the coolest color, is a result of the organisms that live in the hottest water. These particular organisms are also some of the oldest organisms on the planet. The activity from these geysers and springs - the releasing of gases through heating the liquid - is how our atmosphere was formed.

It was exhilarating to stumble around this alien past-world, to be among a world burning more ferociously.

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