Colors of the Yellowstone thermal pools for teaching optics

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Nature provides many beautiful optical phenomena that can be used to teach optical principles. Here we describe an interdisciplinary education project based on a simple computer model of the colors observed in the famous thermal pools of Yellowstone National Park in the northwestern United States. The primary wavelength-dependent parameters that determine the widely varying pool colors are the reflectance of the rocks or the microbial mats growing on the rocks beneath the water (the microbial mat color depends on water temperature) and optical absorption and scattering in the water. This paper introduces a teaching module based on a one-dimensional computer model that starts with measured reflectance spectra of the microbial mats and modifies the spectra with depth-dependent absorption and scattering in the water. This module is designed to be incorporated into a graduate course on remote sensing systems, in a section covering the propagation of light through air and water, although it could be adapted to a general university optics course. The module presents the basic 1-D radiative transfer equation relevant to this problem, and allows them to build their own simple model. Students can then simulate the colors that would be observed for different variations of the microbial mat reflectance spectrum, skylight spectrum, and water depth.




Shaw, Joseph A., P. W. Nugent, and M. Vollmer. "Colors of the Yellowstone thermal pools for teaching optics." Education and Training in Optics and Photonics: ETOP 9793 (June 2015): 97931S. DOI:
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