Watching the Steamboat Geyser eruption is on the bucket list for many visitors to Yellowstone National Park.
Kathleen Rynkiewicz-Stuby was lucky enough to experience just that last weekend when the world’s tallest active geyser spewed hot water and steam up to 400 feet into the sky.
Rynkiewicz-Stuby captured video of the irregular event. It shows a column of steam being forced out of a heater, with a sound reminiscent of a jet engine.
Steamboat Geyser is the undisputed king of the Norris Geyser Basin and is at its most active period in recorded history. Unlike the predictable Old Faithful, visitors should be very lucky to see Steamboat in all its glory, but there are signs to look for that can improve those chances.
Water and steam
Mike Poland, a research geophysicist at the Cascades Volcano Observatory and scientist in charge of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory, confirmed that Steamboat Geyser erupted at 2:46 p.m. on October 8. He said the Rynkiewicz-Stuby video was captured during the second and much longer phase of a typical steam eruption.
“The steamboat is behaving in an interesting way,” he said. “The first few minutes of the eruption are what we call the ‘water phase,’ when the water flows 300 to 400 feet high. After 10 to 30 minutes, the geyser begins to enter the ‘steam phase,’ which can last for up to 24 hour at decreasing intensity.
Poland witnessed the steam phase of the steamboat eruption and described the “roar” of steam as it exited the heater tubes. The vapor phase served as a timestamp for the video, showing that it must have been filmed not long after the water phase ended, given the density of the vapor.
“The aqueous phase is amazing, but the vapor phase is no less exciting,” he said.
The ship is not loyal
Each Yellowstone geyser has its own character and eruption schedule. Unlike Old Faithful, Steamboat Geyser erupts on an irregular schedule, and no one knows why.
Poland says part of the reason for Steamboat’s irregularity may be that he hasn’t isolated himself, like Old Faithful and Lone Star Geyser. Its unpredictability makes it a typical geyser.
“There is some suggestion that very isolated geysers would have more periodic or predictable behavior. Old Faithful is quite isolated from its surroundings and erupts very reliably. “Most geysers tend to be irregular, and some, like Steamboat,” he said. Completely random.”
It’s another possible explanation for the frequent eruptions, but scientists don’t know enough to definitively answer “the $64,000 question,” as Poland puts it, about how geysers work and what variations make Steamboat irregular and Old Faithful in time.
When will Steamboat erupt next? Anyone can wait for the next eruption, because it may happen at any time. It may also take several years.
Fortunately for geyser enthusiasts, Steamboat is now more active than at any other time in recorded history. The October 8 eruption was the seventh recorded in 2023, 43 days after its last eruption on August 25.
Before 2018, the average period between steamboat eruptions was two years. The geyser then erupted 32 times in 2018 and 48 times in 2019 and 2020.
Poland says Steamboat experienced sporadic periods of repeated explosions. One was recorded in the 1960s and the other in the 1980s. Despite extensive research and monitoring of Yellowstone National Park and its hot springs, the cause of these periods of high activity remains a mystery.
“There was a study done earlier this year that tried to answer that question,” he said. “They looked at rainfall data, seismic data, groundwater levels, subsurface chemistry, and thermal emissions. They saw nothing to indicate that anything had changed.”
Another possible explanation for the frequent volcanic eruptions is a change in the geyser tubes.
“Something has changed in the hot water plumbing system. Perhaps a new conduit has been opened, or another conduit has been tied up a little, allowing the pressure to increase to fuel more frequent explosions. We don’t really know the answer to that question yet,” he said.
Despite Steamboat’s offerings to visitors, that time may be running out. The frequency of Steamboat eruptions has diminished in the past few years. There were 20 eruptions in 2021 and 11 in 2022. Poland says it will be lucky to see 10 eruptions by the end of 2023.
No one knows why the revolutions peaked in 2019 and 2020 and have declined since then. However, 10 eruptions in one year is better than waiting two years or more. Steamboat has gone over a decade between previous eruptions.
‘If you told anyone in 2017 that we would have 10 eruptions in one year, people would think that would be amazing. Unbelievable. But now we’re saying, ’10 eruptions a year?’ That’s depressing.’ “I think it’s all relative,” Poland said.
How to discover the ship
There is no giant countdown clock to Steamboat Geyser, and there probably never will be. But Poland says there are signs that an eruption is imminent.
“The signs (to look for) are an increase in minor activity. As the eruption approaches, it will start to have minor water eruptions. A few feet or maybe dozens of feet. These will become more and more frequent until they are almost continuous,” he said.
However, promising signs of an imminent major eruption do not provide a timeline. Steamboat’s minor eruptive activity can last for several days or weeks. Prior to the October 8 eruption, several large water eruptions extended over several days before a continuous 15-minute water phase eruption.
“Over the last five years, we’ve seen periods of time where the minors have lasted for hours, and we’ve seen them last for over a month. The geyser just plays and plays, and then eventually there’s a big eruption,” he said.
The steamboat is also known to drain the nearby geyser spring during its major eruptions, its water being sucked into the geyser’s tubes and erupting from it.
Following the right signs does not guarantee a viewing, but there is always a chance for luck.
“If you go to Steamboat and see continuous sputtering, that means we’re probably getting close to a major eruption,” he said. “But if you don’t see any minor eruption or burst activity every few minutes, we’re too far off.”
Poland shared another sign to look for when trying to see a steamship eruption: covered cars in the Norris parking lot.
“The prevailing wind direction usually sends the geyser spray toward the Norris parking lot. The watery silica slurry can ruin paint jobs and windshields. There are some people who like to watch the geysers and spend a lot of time in Norris. “If you go to the Norris parking lot and see a bunch of “From cars with hoods, Steamboat may be starting to act up and could lead to a major eruption soon.”
Will Yellowstone blow?
Whether it’s an earthquake or a noticeable change in thermal feature, anything happening beneath Yellowstone’s surface becomes greater evidence for the exciting idea that Yellowstone, one of the world’s largest volcanoes, is approaching a cataclysmic eruption.
With so much activity at the world’s largest geyser, this could be the most alarming indicator that a big eruption is coming soon. Do Steamboat’s irregular eruptions herald impending doom?
“The activity in a single geyser has nothing to do with the volcanic system,” Boland says. “Hot water plumbing systems are not directly connected to the system.”
Most of Steamboat’s plumbing is located within a few hundred feet of the surface. This is geologically too shallow to reach the depths of Yellowstone’s churning magma chamber.
“If that was responsible, we would expect park-wide changes and more than just one geyser,” Boland said.
Steamboat Geyser may be Yellowstone’s most dramatic and temperamental thermal feature, meaning it often overshadows the magnificent basin in which it resides. The Norris Geyser Basin is famous for being one of the most unique geyser basins in the world.
One trend among geysers is to stay on one side of the pH scale. Old Faithful and Lower Geyser Basin are on the Fundamental Neutral side of the scale, which tends to produce bright colors like those seen in Grand Prismatic Spring, and is also Fundamental Neutral.
Meanwhile, the mud volcano and its adjacent thermal properties fall on the acidic side of the scale. Poland says that any heat feature that contains bubbling clay, such as artist’s paint pots, is usually acidic (although most are no more acidic than orange juice).
In contrast, the Norris Geyser Basin has features on both sides of the pH scale. Steamboat Geyser is a must, but Echinus Geyser, a short walk away, has the same mild acidity as vinegar.
“Normally, you only see one type or the other. Norris has both,” Poland said. “Norris is an incredibly dynamic thermal zone that changes more than any other thermal zone in the park. It has a lot of heat. It’s one of the hottest areas of the park in terms of radiated temperature and it has this combination of textures.
Perhaps Norris’s ever-changing nature can partly explain Steamboat Geyser’s erratic changes, but having a definitive answer wouldn’t change his character. It takes more luck than patience to witness a major eruption of Steamboat Volcano, which may be part of the reason it remains one of Yellowstone National Park’s most beloved landmarks.
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