Yellowstone Park attracts millions of people to Montana and Wyoming every year. And the interesting fact about those visitors is, a large number of those people don’t know Yellowstone is actually a 44 mile-wide supervolcano. The volcano hasn’t erupted in more than 70,000 years, but there are signs that the force below the surface of one of the park’s geysers is waking up. The Steamboat Geyser at Yellowstone spouts scalding water 300 feet in the air at various times, but over the last six weeks, the geyser erupted three times in a different way. And that different action is making the scientists who study the geyser on a regular basis a little nervous. The scientists are trying to understand why the geyser is changing the way it expresses itself. But even though they don’t know why the geyser is acting strangely, the researchers say the eruptions are not a sign that the supervolcano below the surface is ready to turn the park into a hot lava lake.
Michael Poland, the man in charge of scientific research at the park, said the geysers are a result of the magma heating water that seeps into the ground. That natural occurrence triggers an eruption of liquid through vents in the earth, and the steam shooting up through the geysers is the result of that natural phenomena. But Mr. Poland told the Washington Post geysers are still hard to study because of the sporadic eruptions that can last for years. It’s hard to put cameras and seismic monitors in the right place at the right time. A visitor noticed the recent geyser eruption. The research team that looks for eruptions using the appropriate scientific instruments didn’t pick up the anomaly.
Mr. Poland thinks the unusual three eruptions this year have something to do with thermal disturbances. Thermal disturbances may be releasing underground pressure a little at a time instead of causing a major eruption event. But there’s no way of confirming that observation, according to Poland. The Steamboat Geyser erupted several times during the 1980s, but it was inactive for 50 years before it came to life in 1961.
But an erupting geyser is not unusual, according to Poland. That’s what geysers do. Old Faithful, the geyser to the south of the Steamboat Geyser, erupts so frequently that the park can predict the next eruption. But no two geysers are alike. Each geyser has its own plumbing system, and the system under Steamboat is not as straight-forward as the plumbing system under Old Faithful, according to Poland.