Searching For Life At Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Spring

Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Spring

You cross a bridge over a burbling stream, clamber up a copper-toned hill and suddenly there it is: Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Spring. Standing on a wooden walkway, I inhale the warm, earth-scented vapors that glide across the turquoise water. Otherworldly? Yes. But, surprisingly even here, in this stunning but inhospitable place, there is life and things are growing.

About

First described in 1871 by the Hayden Expedition, the Grand Prismatic Spring is the third largest hot spring in the United States. Veiled in steam, it bubbles like a bathtub, offering a glimpse now and then into the churning caldron. The deep blue pool is impressive, but more surprising still are the tentacles of golden yellow, burnt orange and metallic green that fan outwards from the roiling waters, carving kaleidoscopic paths across the scorched soil.

Grand Prismatic Spring from new overlook trail

Upon seeing the spring for the first time, Ferdinand Hayden (the leader of the Expedition) wrote:

Nothing ever conceived by human art could equal the peculiar vividness and delicacy of color of these remarkable prismatic springs.

It’s enough to make your head spin.

 

Yellowstone’s hot springs

There are different kinds of hot springs at Yellowstone National Park. Grand Prismatic Spring is one. Old Faithful is another. Both result from groundwater that has been heated by molten magma and risen to the surface. In the case of Old Faithful, however, the hot water encounters blockages on its way up. This produces the famous geyser’s explosive eruption of steam.

Old Faithful

By contrast, the Grand Prismatic Spring is produced by hot water that rises to the surface through cracks in the earth’s crust. This allows for a continual flow of water that rises, cools and falls to the earth only to rise again.

Looking into the turquoise depths of the spring

Grand Prismatic Spring

Pouring almost 500 gallons of scalding water per minute into nearby Firehole River, Grand Prismatic Spring is the largest and most brilliant colored of Yellowstone’s many hot springs. The high temperature of the spring (estimated at around 160 degrees F) is responsible for the steam that hovers 24/7 above the crater.

Due to this cycle of heating, cooling and re-heating, the spring has developed rings of varying temperatures. The hottest water, which is located in the center, is too extreme for living things. However, as the water spreads outwards, it gradually cools, allowing for conditions more amenable to life to develop.

Bands of color at Grand Prismatic Spring

Happily, the viewing boardwalk provides safe passage for we humans atop the smoldering landscape. Embroidered with signs warning against the dangers of erring from the prescribed path, it features stories of how people have been scalded, children killed and family pets sucked into the vortex. Even standing too close to the spring can cause intense burns.

The viewing boardwalk at Grand Prismatic Spring

So how can life exist in such harsh conditions? The answer lies in the prismatic colors. Each of these stunning hues harbors billions of colorful microorganisms that live in the spring’s runoff channels. These ‘extremophiles’ (so named for their ability to live in conditions that were once thought too hot to host life) are not only surviving, but thriving, happily assembled in thick, microbial mats.

Forests in miniature

Microbial mats may not sound all that interesting until you consider that each of these burgeoning communities is in fact a miniature ecosystem functioning much like a forest. There’s a ‘canopy’ of microbes performing photosynthesis. And, there’s an ‘understory’ of organisms playing the crucial role of decomposition and recycling of nutrients back to the canopy.

The rainbow of colors that the mats produce depends on the temperature of the water. In the summer, the mats tend to be brown, orange or red and in the winter they tend to be dark green.

Microbial mats radiating outwards from Grand Prismatic Spring

Cynobacteria, marine bacteria that obtain their energy through photosynthesis, are one common organism found growing by the Grand Prismatic Spring. In the world’s oceans, cynobacteria occupy an important position at the bottom of the food web. At Yellowstone, however, they have had to make some ecological adjustments. These are evidenced in the distinctive yellow/orange color of the spring’s outer ring.

Specifically, a certain strain of cynobacteria called synechococcus has learned to survive the heat by adjusting its ratio of chlorophyll to carotenoids. Yellowstone’s extreme temperatures, high altitude sun and lack of shade can quickly overwhelm the photosynthetic process. So synechococcus manipulate their photosynthetic pigments to reflect only certain wavelengths of visible lights. They do this by employing carotenoids as shields, which results in their summertime yellow/orange color.

Close-up of some of the microbial communities

And so it goes. As you move further from the spring, more and more lifeforms can be found. Synechococcus is now joined by chloroflexi bacger, whose combined colors read as orange. Finally, as the temperature cools, the communities of bacteria at the furthest points produce the darkest color, a molten shade of coppery-brown.

View of spring from bridge

Hard to believe these mini orange and brown ‘forests’ are existing right under our very noses. Life is pretty amazing.

 

Life On the Edge: The High Altitude Plants of the Grand Canyon

Point Imperial, Grand Canyon North Rim

Anyone who’s been to the Grand Canyon North Rim can tell you that hiking can be hard on the lungs given the altitude of just under 8,300 feet. And that’s just for starters, beautiful Point Imperial, the highest of the North Rim overlooks, tops in at almost 9,000. My daughter recently observed, while gingerly approaching the edge, that she felt as though she were slogging through a pool of molasses. This prompted me to wonder; how do plants grow under such challenging conditions? I set out to find the answer.

How they do it

The first thing I discovered was that plants that are able to live at high altitude are not like their lowland cousins. In order to survive, they have made some structural adaptations. These include irreversible, highly evolved physical responses to high-altitude environments not seen in low altitude plants. This mix of strategies, while particular to each species, often benefits the surrounding plant and animal communities as well.

Following are just a few.

The creamy flowers of cliffrose, blooming at 8,800 feet

Taking a breather

As chests heaving, we make our way to Point Imperial, I pause to reflect on the many plants that border the trail. How are these species thriving at altitudes of 8,000 feet plus? For one, air pressure is much thinner at higher elevations, making it difficult for my veins to pump oxygen throughout my body.

It turns out that at high altitude, the reduced pressure makes it harder for plants to pump water from soil to stem as well. But unlike humans, high altitude plants have come up with a solution. Rather than struggle to draw water and nutrients through inefficient transport systems, they have evolved smaller sized pathways. These vascular pathways allow them to channel fluids more quickly through a tighter area.

Firecracker penstemon, a desert native, growing at 8,800 feet

Partly due to these reduced hydraulic systems, trees and plants at high elevations tend to be smaller (to conserve energy) and to grow more slowly. They also are more likely to be spaced further apart. Western juniper, for instance, prefers to make its home on dry, rocky sites where there is less competition from larger species. And in exposed areas, it often assumes a stunted form, growing low to the ground.

Western juniper is sometimes described as looking like ‘polka-dots on the hillside’ for this reason.

Juniper growing on the slopes of the Grand Canyon

Taking it slow

Slower growth has the added benefit of longevity. Some of the oldest trees in existence grow at high altitude. This includes the bristlecone pine, which is said to be the oldest known living tree, with some believed to be over 4,000 years old.

An old bristlecone pine

Putting down roots

But I’m particularly impressed by the resilience of the Utah juniper, which can survive even the harshest of conditions. It can grow a 40 foot-long tap root that extends straight down through rocks and crevices, while its lateral roots can travel as far as 100 feet away. This strategy ensures that parts of the tree survive even if the tree itself is knocked down. In extreme cases, Utah juniper can even concentrate nutrients in just a few branches, keeping the main tree alive while the rest of the body shuts down.

Crooked remains of a Utah juniper – is it just conserving energy?

Drilling down

There’s no mistaking this shaggy, twisted shrub that grows high on dry rocky slopes in the Western United States. A member of the rose family, cliffrose has fragrant, creamy blooms that appear from spring to fall and provide important forage food for deer, cattle and sheep, especially during the winter. Its highly absorbent bark enables the plant to retain moisture as do its evergreen leaves.

Gnarled branches of cliffrose

But here’s the coolest thing about cliffrose; its mature seed has a long-tailed hair that attaches to the end of it. When the wind disperses the seeds, the hairs act like tiny parachutes and once the seed lands on the ground, the hair acts like a drill, rotating with the wind to drive the seed into the rocky soil.

A silver lining

Finally, who can resist the allure of gray and silver foliage? These plants employ an altogether different coping strategy. Gray and silver-leaved plants have tiny white hairs covering the leaf surface. The hairs reflect solar radiation, cooling the plant tissues and trapping moisture, which slows evaporation. This is especially important given the low moisture levels of the higher elevations.

Silver-leaved Winterfat, a species of flowering plant in the amaranth family

Gray-green Big Sagebrush growing on Point Imperial

One has only to look at the sun reflecting off their brilliant leaves to see these plants’ strategy at work.

These are just a few of the many fascinating plants that populate the upper reaches of the Grand Canyon. For more information on plant and tree life, as well as great hikes to see them, click here for the National Park Service’s Official Site. We stayed at the Grand Canyon Lodge, a spectacular property run by the Park Service, located on the lip of the North Rim.

 

Running High On The Hanging Gardens of Zion

Trees growing in the rock walls of Zion National Park

I remember being in college the first time I heard of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, considered by many to be one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. I pictured these mythic gardens as masterpieces of flowers and greenery that were somehow suspended dozens of feet in mid-air. According to ancient texts, though, the gardens weren’t hanging in the literal sense, but only appeared to be floating; this was due to a remarkable product of human ingenuity. Continue reading

Catching the Wildflower Wave On Utah’s Patchwork Parkway

Wildflower meadow at Cedar Breaks National Monument

Just a stone’s throw away from Utah’s Bryce Canyon, there’s a scenic byway that cuts a 50-mile route across a series of breathtaking plateaus. Known as the Patchwork Parkway, it provides access to the Dixie National Forest and Cedar Breaks National Monument. In July, this stunning wilderness area takes on an added dimension: its meadows and slopes are painted with wildflowers. Continue reading

Denver Botanic Gardens Showcases the Best Of Western Design

Reflecting pool in the Denver Botanic Gardens

If you haven’t been to Denver, you may think Cheesman sounds like a strange place for a world-glass garden. But, the old-line neighborhood plays host to one of the best display gardens I’ve toured in decades. No matter the season, the Denver Botanic Gardens is sure to impress, and impress me it did, with its distinctive spaces presenting plants from all parts of the world. Continue reading

Nothing Beats A Spring Day In the Gardens At DC’s Dumbarton Oaks

Spring garden at Dumbarton Oaks

When we locals look to get away from it all, many of us head to a garden property known as Dumbarton Oaks. This spring, I had the pleasure of taking a private tour of the estate. It was an opportune time, not only for appreciating the magnificent spring blooms that Dumbarton Oaks is famous for, but also because starting in July, the gardens will be temporarily closing for renovations. Continue reading

Mount Sharon: There’s Gold In The Hills Of Orange, Virginia

Mount Sharon Rose Garden/Photo: Here By Design

The Rose Garden at Virginia’s Mount Sharon

High on a hilltop in beautiful Orange, Virginia, there’s a garden property that will leave you speechless. Known as Mount Sharon, it occupies the second highest point in the county. The magnificent property, which includes a brick house in the Georgian Revival style, is seldom open to the public. So recently, when my garden club received an invitation to tour the gardens, I could hardly wait to go. Continue reading

Shooting The Breeze With The Head Of Versailles’ Kitchen Garden

Antoine Jacobsohn, Head of the King’s Kitchen Garden at Versailles

What if you could walk down the street and, next to the shrubs and other flowers, fruits and vegetables were growing? That’s the hope of Antoine Jacobsohn, Head of the King’s Kitchen Garden at the Palace of Versailles. I spent an afternoon with Jacobsohn recently when he came to DC’s Alliance Française to speak about his role in managing this famous French garden. Continue reading

Bridging the Gap: DC To Build First Elevated Park On 11th Street Bridge

Washington, DC’s 11th Street Bridge Park/Photo: OMA + OLIN Anacostia Crossing

There’s a new movement afoot that aims to turn old infrastructure into public parks, breathing new life into spaces that have long since been neglected or forgotten. Of these, the transformation of an old rail line into a 1.5 mile landscaped park on Manhattan’s West Side (the High Line) is perhaps the most well known. Now comes Washington, DC’s own variation on the theme: the 11th Street Bridge Park, the city’s first elevated park that will soon be floating above the Anacostia River. Continue reading

All’s Fair At Macy’s 44th Annual Spring Flower Show

Revolving carousel at Macy’s Spring Flower Show

New York City’s Macy’s Day Parade is an American fall tradition with its festive floats, high school marching bands and trademark balloons. But until this weekend, I had never heard of another spectacular show sponsored each spring by the 100-year-old department store. That is, the Macy’s Flower Show; a show so big that it transforms an entire floor of the giant Herald Square building into a veritable garden extravaganza. Continue reading