Yellowstone National Park is the oldest of the federally-protected lands, noted for its magnificent network of hot springs. Now, researchers believe they know how these geological features looked before tourists started arriving en masse at the dazzling displays.

Computer modeling of the springs accounted for the behavior of light on bacterial mats, including absorption and scattering. Researchers carefully photographed springs at the park, developing a model of their formation that produced virtual results similar to those seen in the real world.

"What we were able to show is that you really don't have to get terribly complex - you can explain some very beautiful things with relatively simple models," Joseph Shaw, director of the Optical Technology Center at Montana State University, said.

Yellowstone National Park stretches over nearly 3,500 square miles, mostly in Wyoming, but also extending into Idaho and Montana. The national park was established on March 1, 1872, under the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant.

Old Faithful is the most famous of the hot springs at the park.

Native Americans lived for 11,000 years in the area that would become the first national park. The Lewis and Clark Expedition in the early 19th Century passed through the region, and widespread study of the region by Europeans began in the 1860's.

"A mountain wildland, home to grizzly bears, wolves, and herds of bison and elk, the park is the core of one of the last, nearly intact, natural ecosystems in the Earth's temperate zone," National Park Service (NPS) officials stated on the park Web site.

Tourists to the hot springs often toss coins or other items into the features, contaminating their delicate chemical balance.

Montana State University researchers, together with colleagues from Germany, have developed a mathematical formula which allowed them to determine how the brilliant colors seen in the hot springs developed over time.

The Yellowstone Caldera is the largest volcanic system in North America. This feature sits over a volcanic hot spot, where magma underneath the crust of the Earth rises up close to the surface, often creating volcanoes. The island chain of Hawaii was formed by a similar geological feature. A massive eruption of this supervolcano could have grave consequences for human society worldwide.

Over two million people visit the park each year, with July being the peak month for visitors. During July 2010, 975,000 tourists visited Yellowstone. The park maintains nine visitor centers for tourists, along with 310 miles of paved road.

Modeling of the hot springs was detailed in the journal Applied Optics

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