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Steamboat Geyser winds down 2019 with another eruption, adds to record-breaking number

Steamboat erupted Dec. 26, 48th time in 2019
Posted: 2:00 PM, Dec 30, 2019
Updated: 2019-12-30 16:00:06-05

Steamboat Geyser in Yellowstone National Park erupted for the 48th time this year on Dec. 26.

If the current pattern of eruptions every eight-to-nine days holds, it’s not likely to erupt again this year -- but the number of 2019 eruptions set a huge new record.

Steamboat Geyser notched 32 major eruptions last year eclipsing the previous high of 29 set back in 1964 -- but this year's 48 majors dwarfs all of that.

“This is sort of classic behavior for a geyser,” said Yellowstone Volcano Observatory Chief Scientist Dr. Michale Poland.

Poland isn't talking about breaking records -- he says the big lesson is that geysers are completely unpredictable. “Most geysers don't behave like Old Faithful,” Dr. Poland said.

That's because in spite of years of research, there's so much scientists just don't understand yet. “It gets really chaotic when you get close to the surface,” Dr. Poland said.

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A maze of channels, cracks and ever changing water flows is just too complex to detect with current equipment. But, Dr. Poland says there might be one correlation to consider.

“There's been three really incredible, really heavy snow and rain years,” he explained. That means there's just more water to prime the Steamboat geyser.

“There's nothing definitive that we can tie it to. And, we have some ideas, but it's very difficult to test them because we don't have the data that we need, and especially going back in time, lots and lots of date, to really nail down what we think might be happening,” Dr. Poland said.

That quest for more knowledge, for a better understanding of the world's greatest concentration of geysers, is what keeps pulling Dr. Poland back to Yellowstone.

“You never know what you're going to learn here because it's so wide open. Even though we've been studying it for 150 years, there's still a tremendous amount to learn here,” he concluded.

Steamboat is the tallest active geyser in the world. Dr. Poland says it generates so much water when it erupts that it floods nearby Tantalus Creek.

A water flow monitor in the creek is one of the ways scientists know a Steamboat eruption is a major blast – or a minor outburst.