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The Unmatched Geysers of Yellowstone

October 30, 2018
Steamboat Geyser in its eruption of June 4, 2018. Photo by Jamie Farrell, Yellowstone Volcano Observatory. Steamboat Geyser in its eruption of June 4, 2018. Photo by Jamie Farrell, Yellowstone Volcano Observatory.

The one thing that really sets Yellowstone apart are its tremendous assortments and numbers of geysers and other hot springs...

Yellowstone National Park is an amazing place, different from any place else in America, and one thing that really sets it apart is its tremendous assortments and numbers of geysers and other hot springs.

Especially geysers.

No place on Earth comes close to matching Yellowstone. Elsewhere around the world, there are only four places that host as many as a few dozen geysers—the Kamchatka Peninsula of Russia, the North Island of New Zealand, El Tatio in Chile, and Iceland. A number of other sites boast handfuls of them, but, taken all together, the entire world outside of Yellowstone can count no more than 700 (and maybe only 500) geysers.

By contrast, Yellowstone is home to several hundred geysers that are known to be active during any given year and, historically, the full count of known Yellowstone geysers is over 1,200. Many tourists reach the park, thinking that Old Faithful is the geyser and then are surprised to learn that it is only one among many. Sometimes those who make this discovery become “geyser gazers.”

While geysers can be lumped together into three distinct types, each one is a unique individual, somehow different from every other. My book is designed to serve as a guidebook for geyser gazers, with historical descriptions that reveal the individual personalities of the geysers and what they have done in the past. However, what they might do in the future can never be more than guessed at, and the book (now in its fifth edition) will always be subject to change.

Perhaps there has never been a better example of this than during 2018, a year in which there have been several highly significant changes among the geysers. (Fortunately, all but one of these got at least some mention in the newest edition.)

In 2018, the Steamboat Geyser attracted the most public attention. It is the largest geyser in the world, and its activity this year has exceeded that of nearly every other year in its history, with eruptions now occurring every few days, reaching nearly 400 feet high, and lasting for hours. The last time Steamboat was this active was in 1982.

Giant Geyser, the second-largest geyser on Earth, has also been erupting every few days, its best action since 2008. Its eruptions usually exceed 200 feet high and last longer than an hour.

There have been times in past years when Sawmill Geyser and the assortment of smaller geysers related to it have been inactive for a few months at a time, but now most members of the group been dormant for an unprecedented period of time, beginning in January 2017 and only showing signs of potentially becoming active again in October 2018.

Something entirely new, an event known as an “energy surge” or “disturbance,” affected an area near Old Faithful during September 2018. Hot springs that had not erupted in decades (if ever before) sprang to life with bursts as tall as 30 feet, and at least one completely new geyser made its appearance at a spot where there apparently had never previously been a hot spring of any kind.

Long or short, whether dormancy or energy surge or even ordinary day-by-day variability, you never know what might happen in Yellowstone’s geyser basins. Seeing and trying to understand such new activity is what makes geyser gazing fun.

T. Scott Bryan was a seasonal employee at Yellowstone National Park from 1970 through 1986. In addition to his studies in Yellowstone, he has been to geyser fields throughout the contiguous United States, Mexico, Japan, Fiji, New Zealand, and the Valley of Geysers on the Kamchatka Peninsula of Russia, leading the first-ever US study group there in 1991. The fifth edition of his book The Geysers of Yellowstone was published in July.

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