At Yellowstone National Park in 2018, the Steamboat Geyser, one of the most powerful geysers in the world, reactivated after three years of dormancy.
When the geyser reactivated, a group of researchers led by UC Berkeley geoscientists set out to figure out why and determine whether the change in geyser activity was a warning sign of an impending volcanic eruption. The group’s research was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences at the beginning of January.
“The reason the geysers exist in Yellowstone is because Yellowstone is essentially a huge volcano,” said Michael Manga, chair of the earth and planetary science department and senior author of the study. “So when the Steamboat started to become active again, it was speculated that this was maybe because of magma moving around, which means maybe an eruption was forthcoming.”
Campus graduate student and study co-author Mara Reed initiated the study while participating in summer research at the Cooperative Institute for Dynamic Earth Research, where she met the study’s other co-authors.
While this is the geyser’s third active period on record, Reed said this period is particularly interesting because the geyser is more active than it has been in the past, erupting as frequently as once every seven days. When the geyser erupts, Reed said it spurts up to 385 feet high.
“In the paper, we tried to answer three pretty simple questions,” Manga said. “Why did the Steamboat start erupting? What controls the time between eruptions? And why does the Steamboat spurt so high?
While the researchers were able to rule out some potential causes, Reed said the cause of the reactivation remains unanswered.
Manga said they found the geyser activity was not associated with extra heat coming out of the ground, ruling out magma movement as a possible cause and showing the reactivation of the geyser is not likely a sign of a volcanic eruption. The reactivation was not caused by ground deformation either, making an earthquake an unlikely cause as well, Manga added.
“We were kind of left with this ambiguous conclusion,” Reed said. “We still don’t know, we were able to rule out precipitation and earthquakes as causes, but we still weren’t able to identify the exact cause of the reactivation.”
Scientists trying to fund geyser research can face skepticism about how much geysers can reveal, according to Manga.
Manga added that he believes geysers are an important area for future research and a “window” into the hydrothermal processes taking place below Earth’s surface.
“The question is are geysers really models for normal volcanoes, or are they fundamentally different?” Manga said. “Are geysers just wonders of nature, or do they tell us about fundamental processes going on beneath the Earth?”