Yellowstone National Park Researchers Discover Hidden Landscape Shaped by Landslides

by Emily Morgan
Photo by: XIN WANG

Researchers have discovered a hidden landscape full of landslides in Yellowstone National Park thanks to a laser-equipped airplane. Recently, scientists trekked America’s oldest national park on foot and studied aerial photographs to understand the iconic park better.

Now, Yellowstone researchers have a massive new digital dataset at their whim, highlighting further vital information on this nearly 1-million-hectare of natural beauty.

This new study has allowed researchers to detect over 1,000 landslides within and near the park.

In addition, hundreds of these landslides had yet to be mapped, according to the reports from the recent Geological Society of America Connects 2022 meeting.

Most of these landslides likely occurred thousands of years ago, but some are still active.

Studying Yellowstone’s landslides is essential because they can devastate infrastructures like roadways and bridges. Additionally, the millions of visitors that go to the park annually access Yellowstone with only a few entrance roads, one of which closed for months following severe flooding.

In 2020, a small aircraft flew a few hundred meters above Yellowstone that carried a downward-pointing laser that shot pulses of infrared light at the ground.

By measuring the timing of light that hit the ground and reflected toward the aircraft, researchers could replicate the exact topography of the landscape.

“We’re able to see the surface of the ground as if there’s no vegetation,” said Kyra Bornong, a geoscientist at Idaho State University in Pocatello. The Yellowstone data were collected as part of the 3D Elevation Program, an ongoing project created by the United States Geological Survey to map the entirety of the country using this science.

Mapping technology likely to be ‘transformative’ for studying Yellowstone

Ben Crosby also analyzed the Yellowstone data to focus on landslides. The team searched for places where the landscape changed from looking relatively smooth to looking craggy. “It’s a pattern-recognition game,” said Crosby. “You’re looking for this contrast between the lumpy stuff and the smooth stuff.”

All in all, the researchers found more than 1,000 landslides across Yellowstone.

According to Lyman Persico, a geomorphologist, that makes sense given the geography of Yellowstone’s interior. The park is also perched on a supervolcano, whose previous eruptions covered much of the park in lava. “You’re sitting in the middle of the Yellowstone caldera, where everything is flat,” Persico said.

In addition, the team found that authorities had built roads over landslide debris in multiple areas. One example is Highway 191, which sits on the park’s western edge.

According to Bornong, it’s worth studying this highway since it acts as a roadway for high amounts of traffic. The region is also ripe to experience landslides. “It’s one of the busiest roads in Montana,” he adds.

Lidar data can also shed important light on processes like volcanic and tectonic activity, which Yellowstone has. “It’s a transformative tool,” he says.