World's tallest geyser keeps erupting, and scientists aren't sure why

Yellowstone National Park's Steamboat Geyser...

Posted: Jun 7, 2018 2:26 PM
Updated: Jun 7, 2018 2:26 PM

Yellowstone National Park's Steamboat Geyser just erupted for the eighth time this year, and scientists aren't sure why.

It doesn't erupt very often, but when it does, it's the tallest active geyser in the world. The Steamboat Geyser -- known to eject a column of water 300 feet in the air -- erupted for the eighth time Monday. It also erupted four times in May on the 4th, 13th, 19th and 27th, following the initial March 15 eruption and two other outbursts in April.

The Steamboat Geyser -- known to eject a column of water 300 feet in the air -- erupted for the sixth time Saturday

Scientists aren't sure whether the new activity is due to a new thermal disturbance

"It is a spectacular geyser. When it erupts, it generally has very big eruptions," Michael Poland, the US Geological Survey's (USGS) scientist-in-charge of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory, wrote in an email.

The recent eruptions have been a little bit smaller than in the past, according to seismicity data. Even if these latest eruptions are smaller, they are still impressive compared with, say, Old Faithful.

The April Steamboat eruptions discharged about 200 to 400 cubic meters of water each -- about 10 times the amount of water released by an Old Faithful eruption. The problem is that Steamboat lacks the faithfulness.

This geyser is in an area of the park called the Norris Geyser Basin, known to be the hottest and most changeable thermal area in Yellowstone.

"Most geysers erupt infrequently, unlike Old Faithful, so Steamboat is not enigmatic in that regard. But Steamboat has a mystique about it because it is the tallest active geyser in the world. It gets attention because of this, and rightly so," Poland said.

Before March 15, the last time this geyser spewed was in September 2014.

The day of the first eruption, park staff detected activity on nearby seismometers, thermal gauges and water discharge on a US Geological Survey stream gauge.

Yellowstone National Park staff arrived in time to observe steam from the geyser but no water column. According to the Geological Survey, this is a usual occurrence after a vigorous water eruption. The steam phase can last several hours.

Not one person is known to have witnessed the initial water column from the first three eruptions. This time of year, the Norris Geyser Basin is closed to tourists until the snow melts and winter damage to trails can be repaired. Now that it is summer and once the trails are clear, guests will be able to hike out to the geyser.

If it wasn't for sensors near the eruption site -- and the rocks and mud strewn about that were ejected by the geyser -- there would be little confirmation.

Scientist missed the second eruption by only minutes. A team of Yellowstone National Park geologists was in the area for the April 19 eruption, but the geyser became active only 15 minutes after they'd left the site.

Poland said the scientists "were bummed. Especially because they didn't realize that an eruption had occurred until after they returned to the office (about an hour's drive from the geyser). If they had left just a few minutes later, they might have seen the eruption in their rear-view mirror."

The activity of the third eruption was observed by a driver passing through the area.

"Some scientists consider Yellowstone to be a 'supervolcano,' which refers to volcano capable of an eruption of more than 240 cubic miles of magma," according to the National Park Service.

This distinction is based on massive eruptions over 600,000 years ago.

Although the caldera is considered active, scientists believe that it is unlikely to erupt in the next 1,000 years.

There doesn't seem to be a direct relationship with these eruptions and the supervolcano, Poland wrote. "The geysering is reflecting processes that are occurring in the shallowest part of the system -- tens to perhaps a few hundreds of meters deep, whereas the magmatic system starts about 5 km down. Geysers are supposed to erupt, and so what we're seeing is normal behavior."

"The caldera has been subsiding since late 2015, and there hasn't been any change in that behavior in the last couple of months that we could relate to the recent Steamboat activity," wrote Jamie Farrell, research assistant professor of seismology at the University of Utah and chief seismologist of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory, in an email.

Scientists aren't sure whether the new activity is due to a new thermal disturbance or whether the geyser is merely entering a period of more frequent eruptions, as in the 1980s, when numerous eruptions from the geyser were separated by weeks or even days. Multiple eruptions also occurred in 2003.

Or, as the US Geological Survey notes, "the current eruptions may simply reflect the randomness of geysers." It could be years until it erupts again.

"The fact that Steamboat has erupted three times in the past 6 weeks is a bit unusual for this specific geyser," Poland wrote, but it's not unprecedented.

Scientists are hoping that there are more eruptions and that they can figure out how to detect them before they start.

"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," Farrell wrote.

With a seismometer near the geyser itself, they hope to pick up on signals they can't record in a station farther away.

"By looking at these signals, we can see if there is anything that relates to the 'build up' to an eruption. These can possibly give us a way to predict when the geyser will erupt but can also give us insights into what is happening in the subsurface plumbing system before an eruption," Farrell wrote.

The US Geological Survey staff been tweeting about the recent eruptions, reassuring followers that they're probably nothing to worry about, but that the increased activity should mean some exciting viewing opportunities over the summer months.

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 34830

Reported Deaths: 2143
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Marion9900581
Lake3639190
Allen166269
Cass15877
Elkhart132228
St. Joseph128634
Hendricks117171
Hamilton116293
Johnson1115109
Madison59359
Porter54328
Bartholomew51535
Clark50541
LaPorte43824
Howard41528
Tippecanoe4143
Jackson3921
Delaware38539
Shelby37322
Hancock34027
Floyd31839
Boone31535
Vanderburgh2822
Morgan28024
Montgomery24517
Noble23721
White2378
Clinton2331
Decatur22431
Grant21323
Dubois1993
Harrison19422
Henry18411
Greene16925
Vigo1698
Dearborn16821
Warrick16628
Monroe16612
Lawrence16524
Kosciusko1501
Miami1401
Putnam1377
Jennings1304
Orange13022
Scott1203
Marshall1112
Franklin1108
Ripley1096
Carroll932
Daviess9216
Wayne855
LaGrange842
Steuben842
Wabash792
Fayette787
Newton7810
Jasper681
Jay530
Washington521
Clay511
Fulton491
Randolph483
Rush472
Pulaski460
Jefferson451
Whitley433
Starke393
DeKalb371
Sullivan361
Owen351
Perry330
Brown331
Wells320
Benton310
Huntington282
Knox280
Blackford262
Tipton251
Crawford240
Fountain212
Switzerland200
Spencer201
Parke180
Gibson172
Adams171
Posey160
Ohio130
Warren121
Martin110
Vermillion100
Union90
Pike60
Unassigned0167

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 35984

Reported Deaths: 2207
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Franklin5933271
Cuyahoga4508241
Hamilton2698151
Marion266828
Lucas2277248
Pickaway208637
Summit1453176
Mahoning1438178
Butler90931
Columbiana87552
Stark73692
Lorain69259
Montgomery68416
Trumbull58250
Belmont43513
Warren37821
Miami35830
Tuscarawas3493
Medina34624
Ashtabula34035
Delaware33713
Portage32757
Lake30913
Clark2956
Wood29547
Geauga28632
Fairfield2806
Wayne27750
Licking24910
Mercer2167
Clermont2135
Allen21233
Richland2013
Erie17514
Darke17422
Madison1557
Washington11819
Crawford1154
Morrow1071
Ottawa10316
Greene1035
Putnam9314
Sandusky8111
Monroe7914
Ross722
Auglaize723
Hocking695
Jefferson672
Hardin610
Huron601
Williams551
Muskingum520
Union521
Hancock501
Fulton440
Clinton431
Shelby433
Holmes431
Wyandot422
Coshocton400
Fayette400
Logan390
Preble391
Guernsey361
Defiance342
Carroll313
Lawrence300
Brown291
Champaign281
Highland251
Knox251
Vinton212
Seneca202
Ashland200
Scioto180
Perry181
Athens181
Henry160
Jackson140
Paulding140
Adams101
Harrison100
Gallia81
Pike80
Meigs60
Noble60
Van Wert60
Morgan50
Unassigned00
Fort Wayne
Clear
79° wxIcon
Hi: 87° Lo: 70°
Feels Like: 80°
Angola
Clear
77° wxIcon
Hi: 87° Lo: 70°
Feels Like: 79°
Huntington
Clear
78° wxIcon
Hi: 87° Lo: 69°
Feels Like: 79°
Decatur
Clear
81° wxIcon
Hi: 88° Lo: 70°
Feels Like: 81°
Van Wert
Clear
81° wxIcon
Hi: 87° Lo: 70°
Feels Like: 81°
Heat Cranks Up Tuesday
WFFT Radar
WFFT Temperatures
WFFT National

Community Events