Yellowstone Park’s Steamboat Geyser Reawakening Does Not Mean Volcanic ‘Big One’ is Coming

by Jennifer Shea

Yellowstone National Park’s Steamboat Geyser propels water higher than any active geyser in the world. It restarted in 2018 after sitting dormant for three and a half years. 

When the geyser reawakened, some worried about a volcanic eruption. In such eruptions, mud, sand and rocks are launched into the air along with hot steam.

It would be sort of like the one on White Island in New Zealand in 2019 that killed 22 people, Science Daily reports.

Steamboat Geyser Not Likely to Have Volcanic Eruption

Thankfully, a new study by a team of geoscientists specializing in geysers concluded that’s an unlikely outcome. The scientists found little sign of the underground magma movement needed for a volcanic eruption. And no major eruptions have taken place there over the past 70,000 years.

“We don’t find any evidence that there is a big eruption coming,” said Michael Manga, professor of earth and planetary sciences at the University of California, Berkeley, and the study’s lead author. “I think that is an important takeaway.”

The scientists also found that the temperature of the groundwater behind Steamboat’s eruptions has not risen. And no other dormant geysers in the area have reactivated. 

However, they did find that the ground around the geyser is giving off slightly more heat. And seismicity increased a bit before the geyser reawakened.

“Hydrothermal explosions – basically hot water exploding because it comes into contact with hot rock – are one of the biggest hazards in Yellowstone,” Manga said. “The reason that they are problematic is that they are very hard to predict; it is not clear if there are any precursors that would allow you to provide warning.”

The scientists’ study is being published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They could not figure out why Steamboat Geyser reawakened in March of 2018, but they ruled out new magma rising below its surface as the cause. 

Many Reasons to Study Geysers Carefully

That’s not to say there is nothing to worry about, however. The same team of scientists showed last October that water shortages and drought have a severe impact on geysers. They found that a dormancy period for the Old Faithful Geyser coincided with a warm, dry period across the West that wiped out several Native American civilizations.

“Climate change is going to affect geysers in the future,” Manga said.

Based on experiments he conducted in his lab, Manga believes geysers erupt because of loops or side chambers in the pipe that trap bubbles of steam. Those bubbles of steam then slowly seep out, heating the water column above them until the water boils, then erupts in a blast of water or steam.

Manga admitted it’s “a little bit embarrassing” that the scientists couldn’t answer all the questions they set out to resolve. But he said that’s all the more reason to study geysers more closely – not to mention so as to prevent volcanic eruptions that kill people.