Photograph of the week: Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone National Park, USA


You’d be forgiven for thinking that the Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park, USA, is photoshopped. It isn’t. True story. You know what does lie behind its vibrant colours, though? Science.

Without getting too technical, its stunning prismatic colour, matching most of the colours seen in the rainbow dispersion of white light by an optical prism – red, orange, yellow, green, and blue – is actually all thanks to the heat-loving bacteria living within this red-hot spring.

Photo of the Week: Grand Prismatic Spring, USA

The spring was first officially described, and named, by the Hayden Expedition in 1871, on the first federally-funded exploration of what would later become known as Yellowstone National Park. Of the spring, Ferdinand Hayden, the expedition’s leader, wrote: “Nothing ever conceived by human art could equal the peculiar vividness and delicacy of colour of these remarkable prismatic springs. Life becomes a privilege and a blessing after one has seen and thoroughly felt these incomparable types of nature’s cunning skill.”

Nature’s cunning skill indeed. For what Nature has created here is not only the largest hot spring in the United States, and the third largest in the world, after Frying Pan Lake in New Zealand and Boiling Lake in Dominica, but a vividly coloured marvel that has to be seen to be believed.

Created by microbial mats around the edges of the mineral-rich water, the colour also changes with the seasons: in the summer, the mats tend to be orange and red, whereas in the winter they are usually dark green. Pick your season to see your favourite colour combo. As for that magnetic, luminous blue centre? That is thanks to the spring’s extreme depth, combined with extreme heat, causing a completely sterile environment, perfect for the purest of colours.

Located at Yellowstone’s Midway Geyser Basin, at 160 feet (50 metres) deep and 370 feet (110 metres) in diameter, the magical rainbow-hued Grand Prismatic Spring is deeper than a 10-story building and bigger than a football field. It’s also far more than just a pretty face: the thermophile microbes living in this thermal pool have helped investigators solve crimes and NASA search for extraterrestrial life on seemingly inhospitable planets. Case in point: in 1968, researcher Thomas Brock discovered a microbe living here which has, in the years of research since, led to major medical and scientific advances, including the sequencing of the entire human genome.

You can find the Midway Geyser Basin, and the Grand Prismatic Spring, a short distance north from the Old Faithful area of Yellowstone National Park: from the West Entrance, drive about 40 kilometres on the West Entrance Road and Grand Loop Road to the Midway Geyser Basin parking area.

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Comments (6)

  1. Dick says:

    First of all, when I looked at this picture, I had no idea of scale at all. Even though you’ve said that it’s deeper than a 10 storey building and bigger than a football field I’m still struggling to visualise it. I may be being pedantic but is that an NFL field or a soccer field?

    • Marissa Powell says:

      Nick – that’s what I have a hard time with too. The scope of things. When I first learned about the size of the Grand Canyon it blew my mind. I think if you can compare it to something like the field (whether NFL or soccer, I’ve no idea) it’s easier, but I guess the only way to really get a feel for it is to see it all in person.

  2. Freya Taylor says:

    Who needs Photoshop and digital trickery when you’ve got amazing phenomena like this? Leave it to nature to create the best shows.

  3. Jim says:

    I don’t know what the copyright situation is for all of these great images that you use for the “Photograph of the week” feature but I feel that there might be a glossy coffee table book somewhere in the mix.

    To me it all looks suitable for a left-hand page for the picture and usually there’s just the right amount of text for the right-hand side page.

    Over the weeks I’ve gained quite an education from these pages. There’s a National Geographic feel to the series but the tone’s a bit lighter and easier to read.

    • Karen Morris says:

      That’s a nice idea. I know of several of my friends who would go for that as a book for their rather glamorous coffee-tables. It would also help me out with ideas for buying Christmas presents for next year. Hold on – what am I saying? There must still be over 340 shopping days until next Christmas.

  4. Marissa Powell says:

    I’ve read about Yellowstone National Park before but I can’t recall seeing pics of the Grand Prismatic Spring before. You’re right, it does look photoshopped. Too good to be true. Sometimes nature is more amazing than anything technology can come up with. It’s interesting how this is actually created and that it changes with the seasons. Impressive, and understandably a great source for scientists and tourists alike.

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