Why An Idaho Hot Spring Might HaveTurned Fatally Hot

Aug 26, 2015

A man was severely burned and his two dogs were killed last week in a hot spring in the Salmon-Challis National Forest. Normally, Panther Creek hot spring is very hot, but comfortable enough for outdoor soaking enthusiasts. But now, forest managers say the water has gotten much hotter (possibly at or near boiling) and they are urging users to be cautious.

A lot of hot springs with comfortable water temperatures have a mixture of very hot water coming from deep underground and cool water close to the surface. Boise State University geoscience professor C.J. Northrup says if the heating happened gradually, it could be that the source of the cool water dried up.

“If you look at temperature changes in hot springs throughout the year it’s not uncommon to see them be a little cooler in the wetter parts of the year, and then become a bit warmer during the drier parts of the year,” Northrup says.

Northrup says the drought this year could have taken more cool water out of the mix than usual. 

But if the change happened quickly, Northrup thinks a seismic event is likely to blame. The Challis area has seen a lot of earthquakes in the last year and a half.  Northrup says even tiny earthquakes could change the flow of water just below the ground. He compares it to the plumbing in a home.

“We’ve probably all been in the shower and had something happen to the plumbing right?” Northrup says. “Somebody turns on the tap or flushes the toilet, and suddenly the pressure changes and the temperature coming out of the shower changes pretty dramatically.”

Find Adam Cotterell on Twitter @cotterelladam

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