Yellowstone spews out ancient helium


yellowstone

Ancient helium is released through steam plumes in Yellowstone National Park © Ken McGee, US Geological Survey

Researchers have found that huge amounts of helium are being released through steam plumes in the US’s Yellowstone National Park, having been stored in the Earth’s crust for billions of years.

Yellowstone sits on a volcanic hotspot, and is well known for its geothermal features such as hot springs and geysers, where water heated by underlying magma is forced up through the surface, along with a mixture of gases. Among these is helium-4 – an isotope of helium produced by the radioactive decay of uranium and thorium in the Earth’s crust. Jacob Lowenstern and colleagues from the US Geological Survey, who were monitoring volcanic activity in the park, calculated that about 60 tons of helium is released every year. This is hundreds of times faster than helium-4 is generated in the crust, and the team say vast stores of the gas could have been building up underground for hundreds of millions – perhaps billions – of years. They estimate the gas began to escape around two million years ago during a series of volcanic eruptions.

Despite helium’s scarcity, the researchers say it is unlikely that the gas released in Yellowstone could be harvested and put to use, as it is within a protected area and commercial extraction would not be economically viable.


Related Content

Helium hydride

19 March 2014 Podcast | Compounds

news image

Brian Clegg introduces the first compound to ever exist - helium hydride

Shortages spur race for helium-3 alternatives

12 January 2012 News Archive

news image

A dearth of helium-3 is holding up research projects around the world

Most Read

First pictures of hydrogen bonds unveiled

26 September 2013 Research

news image

Observation of intermolecular interactions in quinolines could help to settle the nature of this kind of bonding

Flowing rivers of mercury

7 January 2015 Feature

news image

Philip Ball investigates claims that the burial chamber of China’s first emperor contains rivers of shimmering mercury

Most Commented

Oh, the humanities!

20 April 2015 The Crucible

news image

Science and the arts are equally essential to society, says Philip Ball. Don’t divide them by their differences

Relativity behind mercury's liquidity

21 June 2013 Research

news image

First evidence that relativistic effects are indeed responsible for mercury's low melting point