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Hidden Yellowstone Geological Hazards Revealed with Lidar

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Geological surface mapping has traditionally used aerial photos and direct observations through fieldwork, but the land surface is often obscured by vegetation. Recent advances in high resolution topographic datasets that use lidar have enabled geologists and earth scientists to virtually “remove” vegetation and reveal the bare earth ground surface—including, for example, active faults on the fringes of Yellowstone National Park. In 2022, a new lidar dataset for Park County, Montana, was released to the public that revealed hidden Yellowstone geological hazards.

Lidar stands for Light Detection and Ranging and uses a sensor commonly mounted on an airplane for large surveys. The lidar sensor rapidly emits laser pulses (>100,000 per second) that are reflected back from the ground surface or any object along their paths. The laser pulses that penetrate the vegetation have the longest travel times and thus are the last to return, and these are combined with GPS airborne and ground controls to generate a point cloud dataset that is used to build a high-resolution bare-earth digital elevation model (DEM) or digital terrain model (DTM).

Paradise Valley and gateway communities north of Yellowstone National Park not only have experienced rapid growth in population but also in annual visitors (over 4 million visitors a year). Yet the many people that make the scenic drive to Gardiner at the northern park entrance may not realize the surrounding landscape has a rich record of prehistoric earthquakes that ruptured the ground surface, and numerous landslides of “gigantic” proportions. Although Yellowstone is more well known for its past volcanic eruptions and active hydrothermal systems, large damaging earthquakes and landslides have occurred in the region. The 1959 M 7.3 Hegben Lake event was the largest historical earthquake in the Intermountain West region, and it caused one of the largest seismically triggered landslides at Earthquake Lake, created extensive fault scarps, and altered geyser and hot spring activity through the park.

These “cascading” natural disasters, like that of 1959, which caused nearly 30 fatalities and temporarily trapped about 250 people from blocked roads, provides an example of what could happen if a large earthquake were to occur in Paradise Valley. Geologists have recognized that the southwest limit of Paradise Valley had topographic steps, or scarps, which offset deposits that were less than 2.6 million years old. These are collectively referred to as the Emigrant fault and provide evidence that past earthquakes have happened in the area.

For the complete article on hidden Yellowstone hazards CLICK HERE.

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