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Steamboat Geyser finishes year with record number of eruptions

Posted at 8:05 AM, Dec 28, 2018
and last updated 2018-12-28 10:09:39-05

On Christmas night, Steamboat Geyser, in Yellowstone National Park, had its 32nd major eruption of the year. That’s another record.

Steamboat’s previous record was 29 major eruptions back in 1964.

Before it sprang back to life on March 15 of this year, Steamboat had only erupted four times in the previous fifteen years.

Yellowstone National Park Geologist, Jeff Hungerford calls geysers fickle. He said, “Most geysers are not predictable like Old Faithful and Grand and other geysers are.”

The last Steamboat record in 1964 occurred just a few years after the massive 1959 Quake Lake earthquake that claimed 36 lives. This year’s activity at Steamboat follows the Maple Creek swarm of more than a thousand small earthquakes in 2017.

“Seismicity acts as a sort of conduit cleaner or vent cleaner or plumbing cleaner,” said Hungerford.

He went on to explain that shaking the earth around geysers can also change the flow of underground water.

“We are learning about the underground plumbing. We have a lot of work to do in understanding in how all these geysers are connected,” said Hungerford.

That work is aided by one of the most dense arrays of seismic monitors at any thermal site in the world. That, combined with other monitors and even satellite imagery is beginning to paint a picture of what’s happening underground. Fixed wing aircraft fly over thermal areas in Yellowstone to measure deformation of surface features, a key indicator of activity that can affect how geysers act.

Hungerford said all those measurements are helping to create a picture of the underground plumbing in the park’s thermal areas. He said, “Right now we have a coarse idea in some areas of what is going on underneath.”

Scientists hope to someday have a complete map of Yellowstone’s underground thermal systems.

Hungerford confidently said, “We’re going to get to that point. We will eventually.”

He won’t predict how soon that may happen, but says scientists are hard at work on building that definitive geyser map.

Steamboat eruptions in 2019:

Live seismogram stations around Montana, Wyoming, and Utah: