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Yellowstone’s Largest Geyser Erupted For A 5th Time In Just Two Months, Puzzling Scientists

(Source: forbes.com)

The largest active geyser in the world just erupted for a 5th time this year, puzzling Yellowstone National Park scientists and leaving more questions than answers as to the recent activity.

Steamboat Geyser in Yellowstone National Park is the world’s tallest active geyser in the world, able to shoot water more than 300 feet into the air in a powerful steam jet. Since March 15th the geyser has erupted five times, with the latest occurring on May 13th.

While the geyser eruption is nothing to worry about and does not indicate any increased chance of Yellowstone’s supervolcano erupting, the frequency has puzzled scientists. Yellowstone sits under a massive hotspot, a similar process which created the Hawaiian island chain. Hotspots are a constant upwelling of molten rock from the mantle, which acts as sort of a blowtorch underneath Earth’s crust. While Hawaii almost constantly erupts, the Yellowstone hotspot has tens of kilometers worth of lithospheric crust to burn through in order to erupt. This leads to more infrequent but potentially much larger eruptions at Yellowstone.

You’ve likely heard of the geyser Old Faithful, which erupts every few hours. Old Faithful is an unusual geyser in that it erupts so regularly, indicating a simple and quickly regenerating geyser system. Geyser eruptions are quite simple in their process, water makes its way through cracks and fissures down into the Earth. In areas like Yellowstone where magma exists relatively close to Earth’s surface, the water begins to heat up and boil as it makes its way deeper into the Earth. This water is eventually boiled into steam, adding pressure on the above lying rock. Once the steam builds up to a high enough pressure, equal to the overlying pressure containing the steam, it erupts spectacularly.

#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

This process sends piping hot steam hundreds of feet into the air as pressure is suddenly released from beneath the geyser. After erupting, the process starts all over again. However, what’s interesting is in cases like Steamboat Geyser, the network of conduits in which water trickles down and the location and movement of magma is far more complex than Old Faithful. This makes it very difficult to predict when Steamboat will erupt.

The eruptions are so difficult to predict and shortlived that many of the eruptions go unwitnessed by park employees or regional experts. For instance, the latest eruption was only reported to the park by onlooking visitors.

The United States Geological Survey’s Yellowstone Volcano Observatory monitors the Yellowstone supervolcano along with its many geysers and hot springs. While the uptick in geyser eruptions is puzzling, it does not indicate any imminent danger.

The last time Steamboat erupted was in September 2014, marking nearly three and a half years of no activity. The recent activity could be the result of a thermal disturbance in the Norris Geyser Basin, however, it’s difficult to know for sure. What is interesting is the speed at which Steamboat is able to recharge enough steam to erupt. It is estimated that 70,000 gallons of water are ejected out of Steamboat every time it erupts.

More Info: forbes.com

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