Vandalism is a huge problem at US National Parks. While most visitors stick to the principles of leave no trace, a few feel the need to make their mark for others to see. Carving initials into trees causes permanent damage, and graffiti on rocks can often only be removed with harsh chemicals or sandblasting, both of which can kill plants and insects while causing environmental damage.
Grand Prismatic, the most famous geothermal spring at Yellowstone is uniquely vulnerable, and its colorful bacterial mats can be seriously damaged by visitors walking on the surface or using sticks to draw in the surface, possibly thinking it is 'only mud'.
A video shared this week by infamous Instagram account TouronsOfYellowstone shows the aftermath of such vandalism, with one Ranger leaning over the steaming ground, using a car snow brush to redistribute the fragile layer of bacteria over damaged patches.
A photo posted by on
Grand Prismatic's rainbow hues come from different types of thermophilic (heat-loving) bacteria. The type that thrives in the hottest temperatures, synechococcus, has a yellow color created by a combination of chlorophyll and chemicals called carotenoids, which protect the bacteria from harsh sunlight. This yellow pigment can be seen right next to the spring's steaming water.
As Smithsonian Magazine explains, as you move further away from the water, the yellow synechococcus is joined by orange-hued chloroflexi bacteria, which has a different balance of chlorophyll and carotenoids. The further you go, the more types of bacteria are able to survive, which eventually result in rusty red and brown shades.
Trespassing on the mats can cause serious damage to their delicate ecosystem, while also putting you in serious danger from the scalding water. In 2016, Park Rangers filed a criminal complaint after Canadian influencers High on Life filmed themselves and took selfies walking on the delicate mats. They initially posted the pictures and videos on social media, but later took them down, apologized, and offered to make a $5,000 donation to the National Park.
Despite this attempt to smooth things over, the group were charged with violations at both Yellowstone and Death Valley National Parks. After pleading guilty, members Parker Heuser and Hamish McNab Campbell Cross both received hefty fines and five-year bans from US public lands.
“The judge’s decision today sends a very clear message about thermal feature protection and safety,” Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Dan Wenk said at the time. “Hamish Cross’s egregious actions damaged a world-class hot spring and risked his own life coupled with the lives of responding rangers. We look forward to the outcome of the case regarding the three remaining defendants.”
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Cat is the editor of Advnture, She’s been a journalist for 15 years, and was fitness and wellbeing editor on TechRadar before joining the Advnture team in 2022. She’s a UK Athletics qualified run leader, and in her spare time enjoys nothing more than lacing up her shoes and hitting the roads and trails (the muddier, the better), usually wearing at least two sports watches.