Exploring Geoheritage From Space

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Adapted with permission by NASA.

 Great images of geoheritage sites can be found everywhere.  But no one holding a camera on Earth can “back away” far enough to get the extraordinary perspective captured by NASA satellites. In celebration of Earth Science Week 2016, NASA's Earth Observatory has created a special collection of images and articles showcasing geoheritage sites in America’s National Parks.

Two such sites are Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming/Montana/Idaho) and Hot Springs National Park (Arkansas). Both have hot springs - a natural phenomenon that makes the areas geologically unique, culturally significant, and recreationally important.

The water in hot springs originates from precipitation. Clouds release rain and snow, which falls in the watershed, and filters through the ground.  As the water moves deeper into the Earth’s interior, it is heated geothermally.  This is because the temperature of rocks within the Earth increases with depth - generally 2-3°C (3-5°F) for every 90 m (300 feet) of depth.  The rate of temperature increase with depth is known as the geothermal gradient.

If this hot water can rapidly make its way back through cracks and fissures to the surface before cooling, it creates a hot spring. When a spring happens to sit over the top of a supervolcano, as is the case in Yellowstone, things are bound to get hotter. The temperature within some springs there can exceed 94°C (199°F)!

People go to Hot Springs National Park to bathe in the warm water.  Not so in Yellowstone where the water can reach the boiling point.  Instead, they go to Yellowstone hot springs to savor its natural beauty.

Human activities impact both areas.  Recent interest in potentially developing geothermal energy sources near Yellowstone, and urban development immediately adjacent to Hot Springs National Park, may further change these valued geoheritage places.

NASA will continue to use the vantage point of space to increase understanding of our home planet, including our shared geoheritage.


  • Internet to access NASA Earth Observatory (earthobservatory.nasa.gov) or the NASA DVD, National Parks from Space, in the 2016 ESW kit.


1. Go to the NASA Earth Observatory (EO) articles:

2. Read and use information from the EO articles, and above, to respond to the following:

  • What evidence supports the idea that geothermal features in Yellowstone (e.g., hot springs and geysers) may or may not be connected?
  • Design a plan for monitoring human impact on the hot springs area of either or both national parks.  
  • Use the example of a hot spring to illustrate how Earth’s geosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere and atmosphere interact.