Yellowstone bison

All images: © Georgia Tech Applied Research Corporation/Tom Murphy

Yellowstone National Park is an eye-catching place, full of sweeping vistas, diverse wildlife and vivid geology. But as humans, our eyes can't catch all of it. Yellowstone, like the rest of the world, is visible to us only through a sliver of reflected light.

But thanks to a nature photographer from Montana and a geoscientist from Georgia, the park has begun to reveal itself in surprising new ways. Using state-of-the-art infrared cameras, the duo — along with a team of collaborators from the Georgia Institute of Technology — is documenting Yellowstone in high-resolution heat vision instead of visible light, uncovering a layer of beauty that few, if any, humans have ever seen.

"There is probably no photographer alive who's spent more time in Yellowstone backcountry than I have," says Tom Murphy, a regular presence at the park since the mid-1970s, in an interview with MNN. "And this is a totally new way of seeing it."

"It's art," adds Kevin Caravati, senior research scientist at the Georgia Tech Research Institute. "It's like having a Hubble telescope for the everyday world around us."

If everything goes as planned, the project won't just cast Yellowstone in a new light; it'll help inspire a new generation of Americans to preserve their country's wilderness. "I see these beautiful things, and if I can make beautiful photographs, people will think they're beautiful as well," Murphy says. "And therefore they have value and are worth saving."

Photography already has a long history in U.S. nature conservation, from Carleton Watkins and Ansel Adams to Joel Sartore and Murphy himself. But the advent of high-res thermal imaging — which detects heat via infrared light — adds a new wrinkle by letting cameras capture invisible beauty, too. "One thing that interests me is how creatures see different energy wavelengths than we do, and some see heat," Murphy says. "I thought, 'What does a butterfly see? If a butterfly flies by Old Faithful, what does that look like to it?'"

Consider this photo of Yellowstone's Black Sand Basin, for example. You can tell it's hot from the wafting steam, but otherwise it doesn't seem remarkable ...

Black Sand Basin

... until you compare it with this infrared footage of the same location:

Caravati and Murphy have recorded similar scenes all around Yellowstone, where supervolcano geology offers plenty of hidden gems for infrared eyes. Some park landmarks are relatively obvious thermography targets, such as its network of geysers, fumaroles and other steamy surface features. The composite image below shows Castle Geyser in visible light as well as heat vision, with the latter version's warm and cool colors corresponding to actual temperatures (and white indicating the hottest areas):

Castle Geyser

Steam of consciousness

This may be art, as Caravati calls it, but it's not art for art's sake. On top of making prismatic landscape portraits, he and Murphy are also doing scientific work — not so much to break new ground, but to show how beautiful science can be. "We think this is a compelling way to draw people in," Caravati says. "Let the art draw them in, then let them dig in deeper to the science. It lets you see the world in a whole new way."

Thermal images yield data normal photos can't, making them useful in everything from energy audits to police manhunts. In fact, GTRI's and Murphy's recent work at Yellowstone grew out of research conducted by Georgia Tech engineers as well as energy audits performed by Tech students, who used infrared (IR) imagers to test park buildings' efficiency for the Yellowstone Environmental Stewardship Initiative. But while such audits often use low resolutions, Caravati wanted to see Yellowstone in cutting-edge, high-res heat vision. "We're some of the first people to use these cameras at ground level in Yellowstone," he says. "We often don't know what we're going to find."

That air of mystery is why he sees infrared as an educational tool. Not only does it involve futuristic technology, but it offers students the rare experience of instantly visible, brightly colored science. Most people who play with high-res IR act like wide-eyed kids, he says, clamoring to see what everything looks like. The cameras are powerful enough to pick up even ephemeral traces of heat — from recently handled coins to warm air in a saxophone — and using them for the first time is like discovering a dormant sixth sense.

"When you take all these experiences together, it made me think we can do a great educational thing at Yellowstone using IR," says Leanne West, principal research scientist at GTRI and director of the institute's Landmarc Research Center. "We can teach the principles of biology, geology — there are so many things you can relay to kids just by explaining what they're seeing in the IR images. You can draw them in with that artistic element, and then say, 'Yeah, isn't that awesome? And this is why you're seeing that.'"

The goal is to get U.S. students engaged in four increasingly important academic areas: science, technology, engineering and math, or "STEM." These fields are seen as key to maintaining the country's role as a high-tech pioneer, especially given its scholastic lapses in science. But since kids are often daunted by STEM subjects, a recent educational trend uses art as a lens for math and science, giving more color and form to abstract ideas. Developed in 2006 by former schoolteacher Georgette Yakman, the framework is known as "STEAM," short for "Science and Technology interpreted through Engineering and the Arts, all based in Mathematical elements." It's a particularly apt teaching method in a place like Yellowstone — and not just because of the acronym.

Infrared in tooth and claw

Yellowstone RiverHigh-res heat vision presents a natural outlet for STEAM, Caravati says, thanks to artful imagery that hooks people into deeper scientific discovery. And modern IR cameras do more than just reinforce geyser science and rat out drafty windows. They can reveal something unexpected almost anywhere, even in a well-trodden wilderness like Yellowstone.

Take the scene at right, which shows the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River winding between steep, rocky canyon walls. When Murphy and the GTRI team aimed IR imagers at the slopes, they were surprised to see a rainbow-colored array of hot springs, which Caravati says may have been previously undocumented. And not only does their thermal photo (below) reveal the springs' location, but its high resolution adds detail about their size, shape and flow.

hot springs

Like Yellowstone itself, the appeal of IR imagery isn't limited to geology. The park hosts an array of iconic wildlife, and their heat-related secrets are no safer from Murphy and Caravati than those of fumaroles. Below, a pronghorn unwittingly discloses several internal body processes; we can see elevated blood flow in its legs, nose, ears and antlers, plus the warmth radiating from its heart (that red dot in its abdomen):

Yellowstone pronghorn

But IR cameras also show far more subtle temperature differences, especially high-res models like these. If you look closely at the pronghorn's neck, you can see a small blue dot that Caravati thinks is a clump of newly eaten grass. And as you look at that, remember you're seeing it past throat tissue, muscles, skin and fur — all because it's slightly cooler than those impediments, sapping just enough of their heat to show through.

The GTRI team has caught some animals on thermal video, too, revealing how various behaviors affect their physiology. In the clip below, a bison herd fords the chilly Lamar River, whose water obscures much of their heat. Several bison still seem to have red-hot torsos, but Caravati explains the video was shot in May, when bison shed patches of winter fur to release more heat. The red and yellow just indicate faster heat loss — like an energy audit, except that losing heat is good if you're a one-ton bison in summer.

Thermal expansion

Yellowstone may be a good showroom for IR imaging, but Caravati doesn't want to stop there. His plan is to expand the project to a variety of ecosystems, although such ambitions are in financial limbo for now. GTRI originally sought funding from the National Science Foundation's Advancing Informal STEM Learning program, or AISL, whose mission is to invest in "innovative and field-advancing out-of-school STEM learning and emerging STEM learning environments." High-res thermography at Yellowstone seemed like a good fit, Caravati says, but while it did get a warm reception, it didn't get the grant.

That was a big setback, and not just because federal grants bring prestige. High-res IR cameras aren't cheap, so GTRI rents them for each outing — but equipment costs alone still range from $25,000 to $50,000 per trip. And while they haven't given up on the NSF, Caravati says they're focusing on different types of benefactors. "We think the way to go is through the private sector," he says. "We want to get the images out so people can see them and say, 'Wow, how can we help you guys?' Awareness will bring people in."

Wherever the funding hunt leads, West agrees the priority now is building a case for investors. "One of the first things we're trying to do is get this into the hands of kids and get feedback," she says, "to show that these IR images are appealing and kids can learn something from them." And that doesn't necessarily mean costly field trips to Yellowstone; she and Caravati are also looking into how they can bring the cameras to kids already visiting the park, or how they can bring the park to kids who can't go.

"I think you can definitely generate interest in the classroom," West says. "For one thing, we've already taken a lot of images, and you can get those to kids pretty easily. But we also want to set up webcams, at least temporarily. Right now they have a visible-light camera at Old Faithful, so why not set up an IR camera right next to it? Then kids could watch remotely online." (Check out a sample IR video of Old Faithful below.)

Once they can clear the financial hurdles, Murphy and the GTRI team have no shortage of ideas for where to shoot next. Caravati still has hopes of catching Yellowstone's wolves in high-res IR, and says he'd also like to try other famous national parks like the Everglades. Murphy is less optimistic about wolves — "It takes like three minutes just to turn the camera on," he points out, "so it's really tough to do wildlife photography" — but he does share Caravati's ambition for broadening the project's horizons.

"I think the most obvious are other places with lots of heat — Iceland, Hawaii, places that have a lot of known heat sources," Murphy says. "But I think there could be a whole array of possibilities with ice, like Antarctica. We think of it as a cold place, but the way the solar energy bounces off the ice, I bet it's got all kinds of wonderful heat gradients. I bet it's not just a block of blue. But we won't know until we can get the cameras down there.

"At this point," he adds, "I think we should point it at almost anything and see what happens. It's a big world."

Related thermography stories on MNN:

Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

Infrared photos reveal Yellowstone's dark side
Using high-res heat vision, a scientist and a photographer are shedding new light on Yellowstone — and hoping to inspire new scientists in the process.