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Yellowstone’s Biggest Geyser, Steamboat, Has Trio of Eruptions

It’s the first triple eruption in 15 years—but don’t worry, it’s not a sign the Yellowstone volcano is ready to blow

(Wikimedia Commons/NPS)
smithsonian.com

Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone National Park may draw a lot of attention, but it's far from the park's only water feature. North of Old Faithful, in the Norris Geyser Basin, lies Steamboat, the world’s largest active geyser. While Old Faithful can spew streams of boiling water over 100 feet in the air, Steamboat can top 300 feet.

The problem is Steamboat's eruptions are super erratic, and no one can predict when it’s going to be active—sometimes it takes months, sometimes it takes years. But now, three and a half years since its last major outburst, Steamboat has awakened, spouting three times in the last six weeks, reports Alex Horton at the Washington Post.

Steamboat erupted on March 15, April 19 and April 27, the first time it’s blown its lid three times in a year since 2003. As Sean Reichard at Yellowstone Insider reports, seismic data from the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory suggests the latest eruptions were pretty impressive. For one, the April 27 event shot up more than 10 times as much water as the average Old Faithful event. But still, they pale in comparison to Steamboat's previous eruptions in July 2013 and September 2014.

So, does the reawakening of Steamboat mean the Yellowstone Volcano will soon rumble to life after 70,000 years of slumber? The possibility is extremely remote.

The latest eruptions are just business as usual for Steamboat, which goes through cycles of dormancy and activity. As Reichard reports, since European explorers discovered Yellowstone’s geyser basins in 1878, Steamboat has been temperamental. In the 50 years between 1911 and 1961, it didn’t spout at all.

Then, the geyser blew its top at least seven times in 1962 and 77 times between 1963 and 1965. It had another burst of energy in 1982 and 1983, going off 35 times total. Since then, it’s had smaller outbursts, including the three-peat in 2003 and similar eruption pattern this year.

Michael Poland, the researcher who heads the Observatory, tells Horton that Steamboat is so unpredictable because of its complex plumbing. Old Faithful, which is an oddball when it comes to geysers, has fairly simple underground waterworks. Its water is evenly heated by magma rising from the Earth's mantle, leading to its regularity. Steamboat’s plumbing, however, is likely more complex. Uneven heating of its water source would create the geyser’s seemingly random bursts of hot water.

The eruptions could have several other causes, according to Reuters. It’s possible that, instead of having one large eruption to vent pressure like in 2013 and 2014, Steamboat is simply venting its steam in a series of smaller outbursts. It’s also possible the thermal basin is undergoing some subsurface shifts. The 2003 event was linked to an underground thermal disturbance in the Norris Basin that killed some trees and almost swallowed nearby trails, reports Horton.

One thing is clear—the changes at Steamboat are not signs that the Yellowstone Supervolcano is waking up. The chances of Yellowstone erupting anytime soon are miniscule.

In fact, as Reuters reports, it would be far more worrying if the geysers suddenly dried up.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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