Amidst the strange, lunar landscape of Yellowstone National Park, a long-dormant geyser erupts in a cloud of steam and spray. But it isn’t just boiling liquid that the thermal vent throws up violently from beneath the ground. As onlookers watch in disbelief, a trove of forgotten secrets are dredged up from the bowels of the Earth, revealing an eerie glimpse into times gone by.
Located in the western United States and spanning Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, Yellowstone is the country’s oldest national park. And over the years, millions of visitors have flocked there to take in its dramatic vistas and marvel at its famous geysers. But sometimes, they have left more than footprints behind.
In some parts of the park, geysers erupt multiple times a day while delighted tourists look on. But in others, these volatile vents lie dormant, waiting for their time to explode. And it was one such sleeping giant, known as Ear Spring, which boiled over in September 2018, sending a jet of water and debris high up into the air.
But as the geyser erupted in its most violent explosion for more than 60 years, something unexpected occurred. And before long, the area around Ear Spring was littered with strange relics. Lost at Yellowstone over the decades, they reappeared in dramatic fashion, revealing a fascinating glimpse into years gone by.
So what exactly was it that emerged from Ear Spring that day? Given the long and rich history of Yellowstone, there are plenty of contenders. Because this vast, 3,500-square-mile swathe of land is arguably the most ancient, as well as the oldest-official national park in America. And there’s little doubt that countless objects and artifacts have been lost there over the years.
Yellowstone has been a point of interest for tens of millions of years, geologically speaking – long before there were humans around to marvel at its sights. Located on a thin point in the Earth’s crust, it’s a spot where molten magma lurks close to the surface. And at various points over the centuries, this has caused some spectacular eruptions to break forth.
Add to that a whole host of seismic activity, and it becomes clear why Yellowstone is one of the most volatile places on Earth. But despite the dangers of this otherworldly landscape, it has long been a source of fascination. Home to some 500 geysers and thousands more geothermal features, it appeared as an almost hellish landscape to the white settlers who arrived there in the 19th century.
Yet reports of a place where the rivers erupted into steam and the mud boiled, were treated with skepticism by the settler community at large. But then in 1869 the first proper expedition to what would become Yellowstone National Park took place. And before long, it was confirmed that this improbable-sounding spectacle was real.
So years later the U.S. Congress announced the creation of Yellowstone National Park – the first reserve of its kind ever created in America. And some have argued that it is the oldest to be found anywhere in the world. More than 150 years later, it remains one of the country’s most-visited natural attractions.
What is it about Yellowstone that attracts some four million visitors every year? For many, it’s about the almost guaranteed opportunity to watch a geyser in action. Because the park is home to Old Faithful, an impressive geothermal feature that erupts approximately 20 times every day. And, unusually, park staff are typically able to predict when it will erupt.
And Old Faithful tends to stick to tourist-pleasing jets of water and steam, rather than eerie relics from the past like Ear Spring. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t something sinister lurking beneath. Because the whole of Yellowstone is precariously perched on top of a dormant supervolcano that some believe could erupt at any time.
The Yellowstone volcano last erupted some 640,000 years ago, according to experts. So does that mean that another explosion is long overdue? There are certainly those who think so. And if such a cataclysmic event does happen, it could wreak havoc across the United States and result in millions of deaths.
So it’s no wonder that fear of the Yellowstone supervolcano is relatively widespread. But many experts believe that an eruption is far from overdue. And because such an event has only happened three times throughout history, they point out, it is impossible to establish any meaningful prediction. Plus there is some doubt as to whether there is enough magma beneath the park to cause an explosion.
Despite these points, it remains clear that Yellowstone is a force to be reckoned with. Because even in its dormant state, the park has seen more than 20 deaths as a direct result of its geothermal activity. And this includes two people who perished while attempting to swim in a boiling hot spring. Not a great idea if you ask us!
Because of these incidents, visitors to Yellowstone are instructed to stick to the boardwalks, keeping a safe distance between themselves and the geysers. Not everyone follows these instructions, of course. In 2018 one man was arrested after footage showed him approaching a vent – and placing his head inside. Clever guy, right?
One year later, a pair of Yellowstone tourists were photographed ignoring signs and wandering dangerously close to an active geyser. While they managed to escape danger, they later faced criminal charges for the short-sighted stunt. But it’s not just trespassing visitors that have threatened to create havoc within the park.
When Ear Spring erupted in September 2018, it dislodged decades of eerie relics, adding a new dimension to the perils of Yellowstone. And clearly they’d been dredged up from somewhere underground before being ejected by the force of the thermal explosion. But what exactly was lurking deep beneath the belly of the park?
Humans have been tossing things into Yellowstone’s geysers for hundreds of years, unfortunately. Back in the 19th century, reports claim, explorers used to use Old Faithful as a sort of primitive laundromat, throwing dirty clothes into the steaming vent. And later others would drop soap into the opening, in the belief that it would cause an eruption. My word!
More modern items have made their way into the geysers of Yellowstone, though, as time has passed. In 2014 a tourist was flying a drone over the park’s Grand Prismatic Spring, when they lost control of the device. And it crashed into the vent below, where some believe it may have caused permanent damage.
Sometimes visitors have even attempted to use Yellowstone’s volatile landscape to prepare their food. In days gone by, according to Reuters, the spot known as Fishing Cone Geyser – close to Yellowstone Lake – was a favourite spot with local fishermen. After catching a prize specimen, it seems, they would dangle it over the vent where it would cook in the steam.
But like much of Yellowstone, Fishing Cone Geyser was actually more dangerous than it first appeared. And eventually it emerged that the water contained arsenic, a discovery which brought the fishermen’s habit to a swift halt. But that was not the last attempt to cook food in the park’s steaming vents.
Because in August 2020 a man was caught carrying two chickens and a number of cooking pans near Yellowstone’s Shoshone Geyser Basin. And although reports did not specify his intentions, it seems clear that this was not a sightseeing trip. As the suspect was trespassing in an off-limits thermal area, he was cited for violating restrictions and fined $1,200.
So what was it that made its way into Ear Springs, only to be ejected in September 2018? The list of potential candidates looks long. Just think of all the visitor numbers over the years! But unlike many of the vents frequented – and frequently abused – by tourists, this spot close to Old Faithful is typically a little on the quieter side.
Yes, Ear Spring, which is located on Geyser Hill in Wyoming, is the sleepiest of all the vents in the area. And over the past six decades, it has only erupted a handful of times. Before the September occurrence, it had been dormant for 14 years, having last exploded back in 2004.
But the 2004 eruption, it seems, was a paltry display compared to the violent outburst that shook Ear Spring in 2018. And reports claim that the more recent explosion was probably the vent’s most powerful since 1957. While it might have been dwarfed by Old Faithful’s 130-foot spout, it would still have made for an impressive sight.
On September 15 a webcam aimed at Old Faithful captured the unexpected eruption of Ear Spring. And for a number of minutes, the force of the explosion sent a jet of water and steam some 30 feet into the sky above Geyser Hill. But when the dust settled, park workers discovered more than they had bargained for.
“After Ear Spring erupted, employees found a strange assortment of items strewn across the landscape and around its vent,” announced a statement on the Yellowstone National Park Facebook Page in 2018. Some items, officials claimed, were historic in nature, while others were of a more modern origin. So what exactly was going on?
When Ear Spring had erupted, it seems, it had brought decades-worth of discarded items to the surface. And it was more than just the typical food wrappers and soda cans that you might think. In one place, they found a huge chunk of cinder block which had inexplicably become lodged in the geyser at some point. And in another, they discovered a pacifier believed to be around 90 years old.
But that wasn’t all. In the aftermath of the eruption, park employees also discovered a number of metal signs, including one warning about the presence of grizzly bears. And in one spot, they stumbled upon a discarded piece of rubber that had once formed part of a shoe. How these things made their way into – and then out of – the geyser, however, is anybody’s guess.
Alongside these unusual finds were more commonplace pieces of debris, such as metal cans, scraps of plastic and coins. And wait for it: almost 100 pieces of currency were located scattered across Geyser Hill, reflecting the tossing of pennies into the vents for good luck. Yet this latest eruption proves exactly why such habits are a bad idea.
“Foreign objects can damage hot springs and geysers,” the Facebook statement from Yellowstone said. “The next time Ear Spring erupts we hope it’s nothing but natural rocks and water.” Rebecca Roland, who works for Yellowstone, elaborated on what happens when debris begins to clog up the landscape of the park.
The park ranger explained,“When the vent becomes completely plugged, as it has in several springs in the park, then the spring can actually plug up to the point where it’s not a hot spring any more and it’ll go dormant or it’ll die.” And she further highlighted the situation at Handkerchief Pool, once a popular attraction at Yellowstone.
As its name might suggest, Handkerchief Pool was popular with tourists who enjoyed throwing dirty rags into the water – only for them to emerge clean moments later. But after years of such activity, the spring became blocked. And now it lies dormant, the crowds having long moved on to more exciting areas of the park.
Ear Spring wasn’t the only geyser to spring into action in September 2018, though. Because the unexpected explosion was just part of a period of activity that affected a number of features across the park. And three days later, a new vent appeared beneath a nearby boardwalk, forcing rangers to cordon off the site. You really wouldn’t want that going off in your face, now, would you?
“An approximately 8-foot diameter area of surrounding ground is ‘breathing’ – rising and falling by about 6 inches every ten minutes,” experts from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) explained in a 2018 statement. They also claimed the activity in the area could last for many months to come.
Currently there are no reports of Yellowstone’s geysers yielding any more historic artifacts. But park employees have been cataloguing the objects that emerged from Ear Spring. According to a 2018 article by CNN, one curator claimed that the more interesting among them would make their way into museums.
“Stuff like this that can tell us a story, and the history of how people were unfortunately using the spring while they were visiting it will definitely be added to the collections,” Colleen Curry explained. But despite the appeal of such artifacts, Yellowstone staff were keen to discourage visitors from following suit.
What they don’t want, you see, is a repeat of what happened at Handkerchief Pool. Or the sad fate of a spring known as Morning Glory Pool. At one time this was one of Yellowstone’s most beautiful attractions, a brilliant blue splash of color against the backdrop of the park. But over the years, visitors have thrown trash in the waters, damaging its ecosystem and altering its otherworldly hue.
Like Ear Spring, it took a geothermal event for Morning Glory to give up the secrets of its unfortunate past. In 1950 park employees lowered the water level in the pool, causing the geyser beneath it to erupt. And as the water spewed out, it brought with it a host of objects including handkerchiefs, socks, towels and coins. Disgraceful.
If the 2018 eruption at Ear Spring is anything to go by, visitors have not learned their lesson over the years. But if we want to protect this incredible landscape for future generations, this careless littering needs to stop. On the park’s Facebook page, the statement concluded with a firm call to action. It read, “You can help by never throwing anything into Yellowstone’s thermal features!” Hear, hear.