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Yellowstone’s Steamboat Geyser reawakening DOESN’T mean big volcano

Yellowstone National Park’s Steamboat Geyser lay dormant for more than three years before reawakening in 2018 and has since erupted 129 times – sparking concern that it could lead to the volcanic ‘big one.’

A team from the University of California – Berkeley took up the task of uncovering the truth beneath the world’s tallest active geyser and found few indications of magma movement, which is key for an eruption.

Researchers collected data from geysers around the world and found that due to Steamboat’s size, the geyser stores a large amount of water that provides energy to power explosions. It has a reservoir of about 82 feet below ground and a 377-foot tall column. 

The study also determined that rainfall and snowmelt may have played a part in the activation, as the underground water pressure pushed more water into the reservoir that provided additional hot water to erupt more frequently.

 

Researchers found few indications of magma movement, which is key for an eruption, lurking beneath Yellowstone’s Steamboat Geyser

The Steamboat geyser came back to life in March 2018, following its three-and-a-half year slumber, releasing steam, mud and rocks into the air.

In 2018 it erupted 32 times, then logged a record-breaking 49 eruptions in 2019 and another 48 times in 2020. Its previous record was 29 eruptions in 1964.

The increased activity caused fear among some scientists who thought it was a harbinger of possible explosive volcanic eruptions within the surrounding geyser basin.

Yellowstone’s supervolcano has not erupted in 70,000 years, but this is not deterring experts from keeping a close watch for any indication that the ‘big one’ could soon appear.

The Steamboat geyser came to life in March 2018, following its three-and-a-half year slumber, releasing steam, mud and rocks into the air. In 2018 it erupted 32 times, then logged a record-breaking 49 eruptions in 2019 and another 48 times in 2020. Its previous record was 29 eruptions in 1964

The Steamboat geyser came to life in March 2018, following its three-and-a-half year slumber, releasing steam, mud and rocks into the air. In 2018 it erupted 32 times, then logged a record-breaking 49 eruptions in 2019 and another 48 times in 2020. Its previous record was 29 eruptions in 1964

The research team took into consideration that the ground around the geyser rose seismicity increased somewhat before the geyser reactivated. The area is giving off more heat into the atmosphere, but the temperature of the groundwater propelling Steamboat's eruptions has not increased.

The research team took into consideration that the ground around the geyser rose seismicity increased somewhat before the geyser reactivated. The area is giving off more heat into the atmosphere, but the temperature of the groundwater propelling Steamboat’s eruptions has not increased.

Michael Manga, professor of earth and planetary sciences at the University of California-Berkeley, and the study’s senior author, said: ‘Hydrothermal explosions—basically hot water exploding because it comes into contact with hot rock—are one of the biggest hazards in Yellowstone.’

‘The reason that they are problematic is that they are very hard to predict; it is not clear if there are any precursors that would allow you to provide warning.’

Manga and his team took into consideration that the ground around the geyser rose and seismicity increased somewhat before the geyser reactivated.

The area is giving off more heat into the atmosphere, but this has not triggered a reawakening of any other dormant geysers in the basin.

The team also notes that the temperature of the groundwater propelling Steamboat’s eruptions has not increased.

‘We don’t find any evidence that there is a big eruption coming. I think that is an important takeaway,’ said Manga.

Manga and his team set out to answer three questions about Steamboat: ‘Why did it reawaken? Why is its period so variable, ranging from 3 to 17 days? and Why does it spurt so high?’ They were able to find answers to two.

The team collected height measurements of 11 different geysers in the US, Russia, Iceland and Chile with the estimated depth of the reservoir of water from which their eruptions come.

They found that the deeper the reservoir, the higher the eruption jet.

They found that the deeper the reservoir, the higher the eruption jet. Steamboat Geyser, with a reservoir about 82 feet below ground, has the highest column of 377 feet. This allows the reservoir to fill with more water to fuel more eruptions

They found that the deeper the reservoir, the higher the eruption jet. Steamboat Geyser, with a reservoir about 82 feet below ground, has the highest column of 377 feet. This allows the reservoir to fill with more water to fuel more eruptions

Steamboat Geyser, with a reservoir about 82 feet below ground, has the highest column of 377 feet.

‘What you are really doing is you are filling a container, it reaches a critical point, you empty it and then you run out of fluid that can erupt until it refills again,’ Manga said.

‘The deeper you go, the higher the pressure. The higher the pressure, the higher the boiling temperature.’

‘And the hotter the water is, the more energy it has and the higher the geyser.’

To explore the reasons for Steamboat Geyser’s variability, the team gathered records related to 109 eruptions going back to its reactivation in 2018.

Melting snow and rain added water pressure underground that provided more hot water for eruptions. 

Melting snow and rain added water pressure underground that provided more hot water for eruptions. Pictured is Steamboat erupting on August 22, 2020

Melting snow and rain added water pressure underground that provided more hot water for eruptions. Pictured is Steamboat erupting on August 22, 2020

The data included weather and stream flow statics, seismometer and ground deformation readings and observations from the public.

They also looked at previous active and dormant periods of Steamboat and nine other Yellowstone geysers, and ground surface thermal emission data from the Norris Geyser Basin.

After sifting through the record, the team concluded that rainfall and snow melt contributed to the variable period.

Melting snow and rain added water pressure underground that provided more hot water for eruptions.

Manga and his team were unable to determine why Steamboat Geyser started up again on March 15, 2018, after three years and 193 days of inactivity, though the geyser is known for being far more variable than Old Faithful, which usually goes off about every 90 minutes.

COULD AN ERUPTION AT THE YELLOWSTONE SUPERVOLCANO BE PREVENTED?

Previous research found a relatively small magma chamber, known as the upper-crustal magma reservoir, beneath the surface

Recent research found a small magma chamber, known as the upper-crustal magma reservoir, beneath the surface

Nasa believes drilling up to six miles (10km) down into the supervolcano beneath Yellowstone National Park to pump in water at high pressure could cool it.

Despite the fact that the mission would cost $3.46 billion (£2.63 billion), Nasa considers it ‘the most viable solution.’ 

Using the heat as a resource also poses an opportunity to pay for plan – it could be used to create a geothermal plant, which generates electric power at extremely competitive prices of around $0.10 (£0.08) per kWh.

But this method of subduing a supervolcano has the potential to backfire and trigger the supervolcanic eruption Nasa is trying to prevent.

‘Drilling into the top of the magma chamber ‘would be very risky;’ however, carefully drilling from the lower sides could work. 

This USGS graphic shows how a 'super eruption' of the molten lava under Yellowstone National Park would spread ash across the United States

This USGS graphic shows how a ‘super eruption’ of the molten lava under Yellowstone National Park would spread ash across the United States

Even besides the potential devastating risks, the plan to cool Yellowstone with drilling is not simple.

Doing so would be an excruciatingly slow process that one happen at the rate of one metre a year, meaning it would take tens of thousands of years to cool it completely. 

And still, there wouldn’t be a guarantee it would be successful for at least hundreds or possibly thousands of years. 

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk