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Yellowstone Geyser Erupts Eight Times in Three Months

Newsweek logo Newsweek 6/7/2018 Meghan Bartels
a close up of a rock © Provided by IBT Media

Yellowstone's Steamboat Geyser, the largest in the world, has now erupted eight times in less than three months, in a geological puzzle that has fascinated scientists working at the site.

The most recent Steamboat eruption occurred Monday just after 9 a.m. "It was unbelievable," Jamie Farrell, a geologist at the University of Utah who happened to be at the geyser during the eruption, told Newsweek. He's seen plenty of other geysers go off—but not Steamboat, which is capable of the largest eruptions of all currently active geysers.

"The first thing that comes to my mind when I think back on it was just how loud it was, the roar of the eruption," he said, comparing the second part of the eruption to the sound of a jet engine. That came after a dramatic half hour of the geyser gushing water—and the occasional baseball-sized rock—about 200 feet into the air.

Read more: Video: World's Largest Geyser Erupts at Yellowstone National Park

Farrell wasn't there purely by luck; he was there to collect 28 seismometers he had deployed about a month earlier. Fortunately, he hadn't started gathering them up when Monday's eruption began, so they recorded a total of four eruptions, data he's now working on analyzing.

Perhaps the weirdest characteristic of the current spree of eruptions is that the past seven appear to be working on a schedule of sorts, with one eruption every six to eight days. With the notable exception of Old Faithful's solid predictability, geysers usually erupt at random. Steamboat's apparent pattern could be a break from randomness—or might be just a coincidence.

Wendy Stovall, a U.S. Geological Survey scientist with the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory, is hopeful Farrell's measurements will help scientists tackle that and a number of other questions they have about geysers. "The goal really was to better understand Steamboat as a geyser in and of itself," she said of the instrument array.

In particular, scientists would like to know why it's so active right now and whether there are any warning signs that an eruption is on its way. Currently, eruptions are entirely unpredictable.

And scientists may have plenty more chances to watch what happens when Steamboat erupts. "It seems like it's not really abnormal for Steamboat to go through periods of being really active," Stovall said. She indicated that the mid-1960s and early 1980s were particularly active periods, with four separate years seeing more than 20 eruptions at the site.

But although scientists can hope the geyser will keep creating brand new data, there's no guarantee. The Norris Geyser Basin, the area in which Steamboat is located, is the sort of place where it's difficult for scientists to get bored.

"It's one of the most dynamic areas in Yellowstone, it's always changing," Farrell said. The host of hot-water-powered features—not just geysers but also hot springs, mud pots, and others—come and go and morph into each other, and Steamboat is no exception. 

"This is a really exciting time for the Norris Geyser Basin and we don't know how long it's going to last," Farrell said. "When it shuts down, it may shut down for years."

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