Researchers discover helium billions of years old being released in Yellowstone

Feb 20, 2014 by Bob Yirka report
Steam plumes rise above thermal features along the Firehole River, Yellowstone National Park. Credit: Ken McGee, U.S. Geological Survey

(Phys.org) —A team of researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey has found that a large amount of ancient helium is constantly being released in Yellowstone National Park—the result, they suggest in their paper published in the journal Nature, of a magma hot spot releasing previously trapped gasses.

In surveying the gasses that emanate from various parts of the famous park, the researchers discovered far higher amounts of the -4 isotope than was expected—approximately 60 tons every year. Helium isotope emanations generally come in two varieties, helium-3 and helium-4. Helium 3 has been found by prior research to come from deep within the Earth, whereas Helium-4 is more often found in the crust—the result of decaying radioactive (uranium and thorium) elements. Helium-3 has been measured at the park before—it gets pushed up to the surface due to ancient volcanic activity. Finding Helium-4 emanating from cracks and fissures in above-normal amounts indicated that the helium was coming from the crust. But why so much?

To answer that question, the researchers looked at the long geological history of the region—approximately two million years ago, began in the area. Prior to that, they say, the area was relatively quiet, for perhaps as long as a couple of billion years. During that time it appears that helium was building up in the crust (because there was no groundwater or crust movement), but not so much to the point that it created enough pressure to push its way to the surface. That didn't happen until the area became volcanic—hot magma beneath the trapped helium pushed it upwards, eventually squeezing it through cracks, steam vents and geysers at the surface. And that's why it's happening right now—it's been going on all this time and has just now been noticed.

Gas passes through a hot spring at the Shoshone Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park. A funnel is used to transfer the gas to an evacuated sampling bottle. Credit: J. Lowenstern, U.S. Geological Survey

Because the helium is so old, the researchers believe it might hold secrets about the maturation of our planet—it also provides another example of gasses or liquids being held in the Earths' crust for billions of years, which some suggest might mean that its possible some forms of subsurface life exist that have never been seen.

Automated accumulation chambers permit estimation of the diffuse flux of CO2 through soils at the Solfatara Plateau Thermal Area, Yellowstone National Park. Credit: J. Lowenstern, U.S. Geological Survey


Explore further: Image: Underwater structures of the Great Bahamas Bank

More information: Prodigious degassing of a billion years of accumulated radiogenic helium at Yellowstone, Nature 506, 355–358 (20 February 2014) DOI: 10.1038/nature12992

Abstract
Helium is used as a critical tracer throughout the Earth sciences, where its relatively simple isotopic systematics is used to trace degassing from the mantle, to date groundwater and to time the rise of continents1. The hydrothermal system at Yellowstone National Park is famous for its high helium-3/helium-4 isotope ratio, commonly cited as evidence for a deep mantle source for the Yellowstone hotspot2. However, much of the helium emitted from this region is actually radiogenic helium-4 produced within the crust by α-decay of uranium and thorium. Here we show, by combining gas emission rates with chemistry and isotopic analyses, that crustal helium-4 emission rates from Yellowstone exceed (by orders of magnitude) any conceivable rate of generation within the crust. It seems that helium has accumulated for (at least) many hundreds of millions of years in Archaean (more than 2.5 billion years old) cratonic rocks beneath Yellowstone, only to be liberated over the past two million years by intense crustal metamorphism induced by the Yellowstone hotspot. Our results demonstrate the extremes in variability of crustal helium efflux on geologic timescales and imply crustal-scale open-system behaviour of helium in tectonically and magmatically active regions.

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User comments : 12

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shavera
3.2 / 5 (5) Feb 20, 2014
Can we put a big dome over Yellowstone and capture all that Helium, please? (yes I know that this is a dumb idea)
katesisco
1 / 5 (6) Feb 20, 2014
Note that Sellafield in UK has noted an upsurge in released radon from the crust also. I believe our core is being heated by the sun's unusual magnetosphere and equatorial release of energy.
Our science has launched Mars satellites especially to pick up on this release; by gauging how much is or is not being released by Mars after the sun finishes reversal a comparison can be made as to how much energy will be released by the heated Earth's core.
chrisqwiz
5 / 5 (2) Feb 20, 2014
katesisco, got any source on that?
PhotonX
5 / 5 (2) Feb 20, 2014
I believe our core is being heated by the sun's unusual magnetosphere and equatorial release of energy. ... after the sun finishes reversal a comparison can be made as to how much energy will be released by the heated Earth's core.
I too am curious. How do you propose that the Sun is heating Earth's core without those of us on the surface somehow not noticing?
Bonia
Feb 23, 2014
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Lex Talonis
2 / 5 (3) Feb 23, 2014
"the researchers discovered far higher amounts of the helium-4 isotope than was expected—approximately 60 tons every year"

Since helium floats - like all the way into outer space, should this not be anti-tons?

Whydening Gyre
5 / 5 (1) Feb 23, 2014
Can we put a big dome over Yellowstone and capture all that Helium, please? (yes I know that this is a dumb idea)

We can all then huff it and talk funny for 30 seconds....
chrisqwiz
4.5 / 5 (2) Feb 24, 2014
If i understood the source correctly,
when it states that

"...both tritium and 3He/4He ratios are low for subducting zone volcanoes, yet anomalously high for the hot spot volcano Kilauea and, evidently, Alcedo "geyser"."

is the hyphothesis not redundant?
it says:

"This hypothesis can be tested by measuring tritium and helium-3 in magmatic fluids from hot-spot volcanoes which tap magmas from plumes arising from the core-mantle boundary. In particular, magmatic waters of Kilauea, Loihi, and Icelandic volcanoes are predicted to contain significant tritium."

don't they predict something already proven?
Rimino
Feb 24, 2014
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Maggnus
5 / 5 (2) Feb 24, 2014
In this place we can recall my theory of geothermal origin of global warming, in which the anomalously high He-3 production wouldn't result from its accumulation inside of Earth mantle, but from neutrino catalyzed cold fusion process inside of Earth crust
Oh, another Zephyr sockpuppet! There is no process by which cold fusion arises in the crust Zephyr.
which ... Stephen Jones in 1986 already.
Does not show this.
The solar activity is followed with increased neutron flux, which induces the heat waves inside of Earth crust. We have many indicia for this neutron flux already.
Heat waves in the crust? Really. That's a new one for you Zeph. You can cite proof of this of course (probably not!) I also look forward to you showing the "many indicia" for this "neutron flux" thing you're alluding to.
Captain Stumpy
5 / 5 (1) Feb 24, 2014
Oh, another Zephyr sockpuppet!

@Maggnus
Bonia and Rimino both are his new sock-puppets
but you probably already guessed that :-)
is the hyphothesis not redundant?

&
don't they predict something already proven?

@chrisqwiz
just FYI- Bonia and Rimino are the latest incarnations of Zephir because he pushes pseudoscince like Aether and Dense Aether philosophies and that has gotten him banned from here a few times.
He has been through at least four names since I have been here, and will continue to add his version of reality without reputable scientific support (or empirical data)

although SOMETIMES he does come up with a relevant comment that makes sense
it is rare
jdean_dingler
not rated yet Feb 24, 2014
Note that Sellafield in UK has noted an upsurge in released radon from the crust also. I believe our core is being heated by the sun's unusual magnetosphere and equatorial release of energy.
Our science has launched Mars satellites especially to pick up on this release; by gauging how much is or is not being released by Mars after the sun finishes reversal a comparison can be made as to how much energy will be released by the heated Earth's core.


Doesn't Sellafield have a nuclear reactor that is famous for tritium leaks?
jdean_dingler
not rated yet Feb 24, 2014
If i understood the source correctly,
when it states that

"...both tritium and 3He/4He ratios are low for subducting zone volcanoes, yet anomalously high for the hot spot volcano Kilauea and, evidently, Alcedo "geyser"."

is the hyphothesis not redundant?
it says:

"This hypothesis can be tested by measuring tritium and helium-3 in magmatic fluids from hot-spot volcanoes which tap magmas from plumes arising from the core-mantle boundary. In particular, magmatic waters of Kilauea, Loihi, and Icelandic volcanoes are predicted to contain significant tritium."

don't they predict something already proven?


It isn't proven that these sites are releasing these isotopes. Science deals in theories, not proofs. So nothing is proven... The theory suggests that they will find high levels of these isotopes at these sites. The only way to know if it is correct, is to gather data.
chrisqwiz
not rated yet Feb 24, 2014
..the latest incarnations of Zephir..

Good to know, was already wondering what's up with those Zephyr posts.
..The theory suggests that they will find high levels of these isotopes at these sites. The only way to know if it is correct, is to gather data.

The way to gain knowledge in science is known to me, but since English is not my first language, my choice of words is certainly debatable. Despite the most presumably not given reliability of the source provided by Bonia, what made me ask my question was the fact that the source states that measurements were carried out which reveal high concentrations of tritium in hot-spot volcano magma and in the next paragraph the author/s suggest a hypothesis which they say "can be tested by measuring tritium [...] in magmatic fluids from hot-spot volcanoes". Seems redundant to me, since there's data obtained from measurements, then they build up a theory which could be proven by measurements that have already been made.

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