Ear Springs: Long-Dormant Yellowstone Geyser Spits Out Trash From 1930s

Ear Springs hadn't erupted since 1957.

Yellowstone National Park is home to more geysers than any region on Earth. Its most famous, Old Faithful, is named for the fact it erupts more frequently than any of the others. Less prolific ones, like Ear Springs, don’t erupt as often, which means that they spend more time accumulating material to spit up. And it’s not all water: As a new video shows, when Ear Springs erupted for the first time since 1957 this September, the reluctant geyser showered the park with a spray of trash.

Geysers are hot springs in which water occasionally boils, sending a burst of water and steam into the air. When Ear Springs boiled over on September 15, water shot up 30 feet high, causing the spring itself to momentarily empty. But in the aftermath, there wasn’t just water everywhere but also garbage, both new and decades old. In the video above, released on October 31, Yellowstone park staff reveal that some of the junk goes all the way back to the 1930s.

The recovered items are a mixture of accidental litter and purposefully disposed-of trash, meaning that tourists have treated Yellowstone like garbage with garbage for decade. In the heaps recovered after the eruption, staff recovered camera flashbulbs from the 1950s, Kodak film wrapping, and beer cans that pre-date 1962. They also found a baby’s pacifier that dates to about 1930, a scientific instrument, and a huge number of “wishing” pennies. Save for the pacifier and scientific instrument, the park rangers reason the rest of the items were thrown into Ear Springs on purpose.

In many cases, the design of the items revealed their age. The beer cans, for example, vary enough in style that the park’s staff could tell which one came from what era. Another clue, however, is the amount of geyserite — a opaline silica found around hot springs and geysers — that has formed on the items. In the video, the rangers explain that a half-inch of geyserite indicates one century.

Ear Spring’s long-overdue eruption may be the result of the amount of trash that built up inside it. Park Ranger Rebecca Roland told CNN that when a vent is plugged with too much trash, the spring can become dormant or die.

A scientific instrument, camera bulbs, and Polaroid camera packs emerged from Ear Springs. 

Yellowstone National Park

Sadly, that’s what happened to a small nearby spring called Handkerchief Pool. It’s the perfect example of why we can’t have nice things: About a hundred years ago, it became a fun pastime to throw in dirty handkerchiefs into the small spring. The handkerchiefs would swirl around, get sucked into the depths, and emerge moments later cleaner than before — fun stuff. But then, people started throwing coins, broken bottles, hairpins, and horseshoes into Handkerchief Pool. The natural plumbing system became damaged, and today it’s dormant and nearly forgotten.

Yellowstone park rangers are hopeful that the next time Ear Springs erupts — whenever that is — it will only spit out natural rocks and water. Whether that happens is on park visitors.

“Stuff [the garbage] like this can tell us a story,” museum curator Colleen Curry told CNN, “and the history of how people were unfortunately using the spring while they were visiting it will definitely be added to the collections.”

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