While the world’s eyes are gazing warily at the erupting Kilauea volcano in Hawaii, someone needs to be watching the Steamboat Geyser in Yellowstone National Park. After being dormant since 2014, the world’s largest active geyser has suddenly spewed steam skyward (your tongue-twister for today) for the fifth time in less than two months … and researchers can’t explain why.
Old Faithful gets all of the attention, but Steamboat is in the record books for its 300-foot (91 meter) eruptions that can last up to 40 minutes. To give you some idea how much water nature’s biggest super-shooter fire in one blast, the nearby Cistern Spring is drained completely and takes a few days to refill. Experts estimate that’s about 70,000 gallons. Unlike Old Faithful, Steamboat Geyser is completely unreliable. Until this two-month burst with just days between eruptions, Steamboat has gone from 32 days to 50 years between eruptions.
That sudden change from its unfaithful schedule and long periods between eruptions are what have some experts from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) looking into Steamboat (not physically – you could put your eye out).
#Steamboat #Geyser in @YellowstoneNPS erupts for 5th time in 2018, just before 4 AM on May 13. Steamboat also had frequent eruptions in the 1960s and early 1980s. No implications for volcanic activity, but good implications for viewing some spectauclar geysering this summer! pic.twitter.com/3c4YDcdHyO
— USGS Volcanoes (@USGSVolcanoes) May 13, 2018
“No implications” is the same thing they said in February when a swarm of over 200 small earthquakes occurred five miles below Yellowstone National Park during a 2 week period in February 2018. And the same thing they said when the supervolcano area was hit by 2,400 earthquakes during the summer of 2017. And … you get the idea. The USGS doesn’t want to commit because they don’t want to start a panic.
Should we believe the USGS about Steamboat? Geysers are caused by surface water seeping downward until it meets hot rocks being heated by magma. The steam and hot water shoots back up through the geyser’s narrow sealed pipeline and bursts through the small opening until there’s no more pressure to push it out. Steamboat has been known to vent for 48 hours after a major eruption.
That’s the physics. What this doesn’t explain is five major eruptions in a matter of weeks by a geyser that has been known to lie dormant for decades. Is the magma of the Yellowstone supervolcano building? Is it closer to the surface? How is it reloading so fast? WHY is it reloading so fast?
“No implications” is no answer. Geyser watchers use seismic alarms to notify them when it erupts, which means they miss the initial burst and possibly the whole eruption. Michael Poland, the USGS scientist-in-charge of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory, understatedly told CNN:
"The fact that Steamboat has erupted three times in the past 6 weeks is a bit unusual for this specific geyser."
A bit? In addition, because of the recent surge, Jamie Farrell, research assistant professor of seismology at the University of Utah and chief seismologist of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory, told this to CNN:
"We are planning on placing seismometers near Steamboat Geyser within the next week. If it erupts again, it would be nice to be able to record any (precusory) activity."
No implications? We’ll see.