Yellowstone Volcano: Steamboat Geyser Is About to Smash Its Record for Eruptions

Steamboat geyser in Yellowstone National Park is the tallest active geyser in the world, capable of shooting jets of boiling hot water more than 300 feet into the air.

Recently, Steamboat has been unusually active. In fact, the geyser experienced seven water eruptions over the course of June—on the 1st, 7th, 12th, 15th, 23rd and 28th—which takes Steamboat's total tally for the year to 25, according to the United States Geological Survey (USGS.)

With half of 2019 gone already, this means the geyser is well on track to smash the annual eruption record that was set last year, which stands at 32. The previous record—29—was set all the way back in 1964.

In June, the record was also broken for the shortest time ever recorded between two eruptions—three days, three hours and 48 minutes—the Billings Gazette reported.

While Steamboat has been particularly active since March 2018, this is not unprecedented, says Michael Poland from the USGS's Yellowstone Volcano Observatory.

"Steamboat has gone through other periods where it is extremely active—the 1960s and early 1980s, for example," Poland told Newsweek. "During those periods, it erupted dozens of times. It's more active now than it was during those periods, but this is how geysers work. Most have fluctuating periods of activity—they go through phases where they might be more active, and then less active."

In fact, the geyser has also experienced periods of relative calm in recent times. For example, there were no significant eruptions between October 1991 and May 2000, according to the USGS.

When Steamboat experiences a significant eruption, the powerful water jets can last anywhere between 3 and 40 minutes. These are then followed by loud, powerful discharges of steam which can last for more than 24 hours and reach up to 650 feet into the air. While large eruptions are relatively infrequent—even during the geyser's most active periods—minor ones (between 10 and 15 feet) are more common.

Unlike Yellowstone's other famous geyser "Old Faithful" which is highly predictable, Steamboat's major eruptions are much more difficult to pin down. While recent activity shows that intervals between significant eruption can be relatively short, Steamboat—located in Yellowstone's Norris Geyser Basin—has gone up to 50 years without erupting (between 1911 and 1961,) at least in the period for which we have scientific records.

"Old Faithful is sort of the exception to the rule, but even its activity has changed subtly over time," Poland said. "Steamboat might represent the other extreme, going decades without being that active, and then being very active."

While scientists cannot be sure about what is causing Steamboat's recent uptick in activity due to the generally random nature of geysers, Poland says that we may be able to learn important lessons from it.

"Hopefully, the fact that Steamboat is so active now will give us some clues," he said. "For example, seismologists from the University of Utah have worked with National Park scientists to deploy seismometers around Steamboat to see if they can image the boiling process and map Steamboat's plumbing system. That would be important information for understanding why it is behaving the way it is."

According to the National Park Service, Yellowstone is home to a spectacular array of more than 10,000 hydrothermal features, such as mudpots, fumaroles and hot springs. This figure includes more than 500 geysers, which is around 50 percent of the world total.

Put simply, geysers erupt when hot rocks below the Earth's surface in areas of volcanic activity heat water in underground reservoirs. When this water becomes superheated, it rapidly expands, blasting its way to the surface through cracks and fissures in the ground.

This article was updated to include additional comments from Michael Poland.

steamboat geyser
Tourist watches the Steamboat Geyser erupt in Norris Basin on August 22, 2018 in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. George Frey/Getty Images