Isotope and Chemical Compositions of Meteoric and Thermal Waters and Snow from the Greater Yellowstone National Park Region

Open File Report 02-194

By Yousif K. Kharaka, James J. Thordsen and Lloyd D. White


The full report is available in pdf.  Links to the pdf.


An intensive hydrogeologic investigation, mandated by U.S. Congress and centered on the Norris-Mammoth corridor was conducted by USGS and other scientists during 1988-90 to determine the effects of using thermal water from a private well located in the Corwin Springs Known Geothermal Resources Area, Montana, on the thermal springs of Yellowstone National Park (YNP), especially Mammoth Hot Springs. As part of this investigation, we carried out a detailed study of the isotopic and chemical compositions of meteoric water from cold springs and wells, of thermal water, especially from the Norris-Mammoth corridor and of snow. Additional sampling of meteoric and thermal waters from YNP and surrounding region in northwest Wyoming, southwest Montana and southeast Idaho was carried out in 1991-92 to characterize the distribution of water isotopes in this mountainous region and to determine the origin and possible recharge locations of thermal waters in and adjacent to the Park.


The SNAKE IMAGED and SNAKE IMAGE18O values for 40 snow samples range from –88 to –178‰ and –12.5 to –23.9‰, respectively, and define a well constrained line given by SNAKE IMAGED = 8.2 SNAKE IMAGE18O + 14.7 (r2 = 0.99) that is nearly identical to the Global Meteoric Water Line. The SNAKE IMAGED and SNAKE IMAGE18O values of 173 cold water samples range from –115 to –153‰ and –15.2 to –20.2‰, respectively, and exhibit a similar relationship although with more scatter and with some shift to heavier isotopes, most likely due to evaporation effects. The spatial distribution of cold-water isotopes shows a roughly circular pattern with isotopically lightest waters centered on the mountains and high plateau in the northwest corner of Yellowstone National Park and becoming heavier in all directions.


The temperature effect due to altitude is the dominant control on stable water isotopes throughout the region; however, this effect is obscured in narrow 'canyons' and areas of high topographic relief. The effects due to distance (i.e. "continental") and latitude on water isotopes probably are relatively minor and difficult to resolve from the major controls. The data indicate that the groundwater are derived predominantly from cold, isotopically light winter precipitation, and that the isotope values of groundwater from elevations above about 2.5-3.0 km in the Gallatin and northern Absaroka Ranges are light enough (The SNAKE IMAGED CHAR-GREATEREQUAL–149‰) to be the presumed recharge water for the hydrothermal system in the Park. However, estimation of the present-day volume of this recharged, isotopically light water indicates that it is not adequate to supply the high (3-4 m3/s) thermal water discharges from YNP, and cooler temperatures at the time of recharge would be required. The volume of meteoric water with SNAKE IMAGED values lighter than –145‰ may be adequate for recharging the hydrothermal system, and this may be a more plausible value than the –149‰ originally calculated from data that are subject to moderate uncertainties.





Description of Study Area

Regional Geology



Snow Samples

Field Procedures

Laboratory Measurement

Water Isotopes


Chemical Composition of Cold Water and Snow

Isotope Composition of Cold Water and Snow

Controls on Cold Water Isotopes

Hydrothermal Fluid Discharges

Thermal Water and Gas Compositions

Origin and Evolution of Thermal Fluids

Hydrothermal fluids from the Mammoth system





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Yousif K. Kharaka

U.S. Geological Survey

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