YNP’s Steamboat Geyser keeps erupting, and scientists want to know why

Posted at 8:37 AM, Jun 21, 2018
and last updated 2018-11-30 14:27:37-05

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK — Steamboat Geyser, the world’s tallest and far more powerful than Old Faithful, is roaring back to life.

Often dormant for decades, it has now erupted nine times in the past few months. It can do what Kilauea has done on Hawaii’s Big Island, only much bigger.

Because the geyser field at Yellowstone National Park lies on top of an active volcano, with multiple chambers of magma from deep beneath the earth, the same energy that causes geysers to blow could spew an ash cloud as far as Chicago and Los Angeles.

Steamboat Geyser at Yellowstone National Park. CBS NEWS

“It’s amazing to think of the scale of these eruptions,” said Mike Poland, the scientist in charge of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory.

The eruption that created the park was 70,000 years ago, and there are no signs of that happening anytime soon. But scientists do want to know what’s behind the most recent activity.

“We see gas emissions. We see all kinds of thermal activity. That’s what Yellowstone does. That’s what it’s supposed to do. It’s one of the most dynamic places on earth,” Poland said.

The least predictable geyser in the park is Steamboat. It could erupt in five minutes, five years — even 50 years from now. Yet no one visiting Yellowstone wants to turn away from the sight.

“That would be the chance of a lifetime,” one visitor said. “I would be amazed.”

Timing is everything, and only a lucky few get to see it. Poland’s team of volcanologists are using thermal-imaging equipment to track the temperature of the 50-mile-wide magma field. They also monitor 28 seismographs since a super volcano would include major earthquake activity.

That so much is happening now is a boon not just for scientists, but for science enthusiasts like Hannah Gilbert.

“This is amazing,” she said. “This is a nerd’s paradise.”