This blog provides commentary on interesting geological events occurring around the world in the context of my own work. This work is, broadly, geological fluid dynamics. The events that I highlight here are those that resonate with my professional life and ideas, and my goal is to interpret them in the context of ideas I've developed in my research. The blog does not represent any particular research agenda. It is written on a personal basis and does not seek to represent the University of Illinois, where I am a professor of geology and physics. Enjoy Geology in Motion! I would be glad to be alerted to geologic events of interest to post here! I hope that this blog can provide current event materials that will make geology come alive.

Banner image is by Ludie Cochrane..

Susan Kieffer can be contacted at s1kieffer at gmail.com

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Steamboat geyser erupts!

AP Photo/Robb Long
One of Yellowstone's most spectacular geysers erupted today, making headlines in major newspapers and radio news shows. Why such a fuss? Steamboat erupts to hundreds of feet, but only rarely and never predictably. Having worked in Yellowstone studying the geysers, I can imagine the excitement of the tourists as they hear the roar of the geyser erupting, see the towering plume, and perhaps get showered by its steam and droplets (hopefully not by any entrained rocks or sand). I wonder how many have glasses or camera lenses that now bear witness to the chemicals in Steamboat's water with fine deposits of minerals precipitated when that water evaporates?

What is a geyser? Is Steamboat really a geyser or should it be called a "hydrothermal explosion?" Geysers are usually defined as systems of hot water that intermittently ejecta some or all of their water into plumes consisting of water and steam. Geysers lie along a spectrum of thermal features that range from hot springs (warm to scalding) on one end and fumaroles on the other. A fumarole spouts dry or wet steam, usually continuously, but sometimes intermittently. Geysers can be thought of as hot springs that intermittently eject the hot water from their reservoirs.

The activity of a particular thermal feature in an area like Yellowstone depends on a delicate balance of heat and water (heat is supplied by hot water, vapor, or gases that rise from magma at depth; most of the water is circulating cool groundwater that is heated by the magmatic hot water or gases, or by contact with surrounding hot rocks). Too much water and you have a hot spring. Too much heat and you have a fumarole.  Just a right balance and you get a geyser that discharges and recharges its heat and water in cycles. (There are even cold "geysers" that charge and recharge carbon dioxide, but that's another story!)
Conduit of Old Faithful

What does the reservoir of a geyser look like? We don't know for most geysers as it is difficult and dangerous to try to find out. However, in the 1990's, with the permission and assistance of the National Park Service, we lowered an ice-cooled miniature video camera into Old Faithful. This was in the days before truly miniature videos were available, and our system had to be less than 4" diameter to pass through a known constriction, had to contain its own lighting system, had to be cooled with ice because it was in an environment of 92 C steam, and had to have a heated lens to prevent condensation on the otherwise cool unit.  My colleague Jim Westphal at Caltech cleverly designed the system. From this work, we were able to constrict the cross-section of Old Faithful shown to the right. The reservoir is a tortuous series of narrow and wide spaces.  Researchers in Russia have probed geysers there and found similarly complex conduits, and it is likely that the reservoir of Steamboat Geyser is a similar complex of caverns and constrictions.

That word "intermittently"in the definition of a geyser is taken by many to mean "regularly" and somewhat "predictably." So, tourists get used to the fact that the National Park Service can tell them within about 10 minutes or so when Old Faithful is going to erupt; and within several tens of minutes or several hours for a number of the other geysers around Yellowstone.

So, what is Steamboat? It is a geyser if the word "intermittently" is used properly. But, the eruptions are so rare that they do resemble those rather nasty events called "hydrothermal explosions." The term "hydrothermal explosion" is usually used to describe a new feature--one that has popped up where no known feature, such as a geyser, existed before.  The vent of Steamboat is so large that it is well-known, and the boardwalk for tourists passes right by it so one can look down on its vent. But, just as some tourists probably got taken by surprise if they were close to Steamboat when this mighty eruption (reported to have been 200-300 feet high for 9 minutes) took off, tourists in the thermal basins are always at risk of a true hydrothermal explosion. That's one reason for staying on the boardwalks constructed for walking through these basins--they are built in areas deemed as safe as possible from future surprises.

**Reference: Hutchinson, R., Westphal, J., and Kieffer, S., In situ observations of Old Faithful Geyser, Geology, 25(10), 875-878, 1997.


Mike said...

The phrase "hydrothermal explosion" is not used correctly here. I will not get into the details of the mechanics of a hydrothermal explosion (Wikipedia has a nice, succinct explanation). My point, however, is that a known feature can have a hydrothermal explosion. For example, Pork Chop geyser, located in Norris Geyser Basin very close to Steamboat had a hydrothermal explosion in early September, 1989. It was a well known geothermal feature prior to the eruption.

Mike said...

The phrase "hydrothermal explosion" is not used correctly here. I won't go into the mechanics of hydrothermal explosions (Wikipedia has a nice, succinct explanation). My point is that hydrothermal explosions can occur at known features. For example, Pork Chop Geyser, located in Norris Geyser Basin very near to Steamboat, had a hydrothermal eruption in early September, 1989. It was a well known hydrothermal feature prior to this eruption.