MSU Researches The Optics Behind Yellowstone's Thermal Springs - ABC FOX Montana Local News, Weather, Sports KTMF | KWYB

MSU Researches The Optics Behind Yellowstone's Thermal Springs

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BOZEMAN - Researchers at Montana State University uncover what creates the colors we see in thermal springs in Yellowstone National Park. When German professor Michael Vollmer visited the park, he became curious about what lies behind the colors we see when looking at the natural features. He brought his curiosity to MSU's optical technology department and the research began.

PhD student and research engineer, Paul Nugent said, "We decided it would be a fun trip with all of our equipment, go down there with our spectrometers, thermal imaging cameras and a good still cameras."

MSU's Director of Optical Technology, Dr. Joe Shaw along with Nugent used optical technology to create a simple mathematical model to explain how temperature and chemical composition can combine to make the vibrant colors of a natural thermal springs.

"We were able to reproduce the stunning colors within the pools, particularly in the deep water so that is what we were looking at,” said Nugent.

Dr. Shaw said, "Now we understand that in shallow water you see pretty much what they already knew but in deeper water the colors become quite different and that is the piece that we were able to contribute to."

Their research concluded that in deeper water the colors are caused by the absorption and scattering of light in the water. Dr. Shaw admits the project stemmed from curiosity and was viewed as a fun opportunity, but says it was a valuable one at the end of the day.

"What we did was add our expertise in optics, particularly in optics of nature understanding how air and water affects the colors that we see,” said Dr. Shaw.

The absorption of light and change in color spectrum in the deeper pools is what causes the vibrant dark blues and greens that make the thermal pools a hot attraction in the park. Working on a project like this so close to home is what the team enjoyed the most.

Nugent said, "Being able to do a project with Yellowstone and look at a natural feature that is so close to Bozeman was very cool."

"It is always special to do research that helps understand something in Yellowstone, because the park is a real defining feature of our life in this region," said Dr. Shaw.

With the new model created, Dr. Shaw and his team were actually able to go back in time and show what the thermals looked like as far back as the late 1800's.

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