The Steamboat Geyser at Yellowstone National Park is no Old Faithful.
The world’s tallest active geyser – whose major eruptions shoot water more than 300 feet into the air – is known to be unpredictable. But if there was ever a year to witness Steamboat’s spectacular surge of water, this might be it.
We’re just over halfway through 2019 and the Steamboat Geyser has already erupted 25 times, according to the US Geological Survey. That puts it on track to surpass last year’s record of 32 eruptions – the largest number ever recorded in a year. The record before that was 29 eruptions in 1964.
The Steamboat Geyser erupted seven times just last month alone, the USGS said. June’s outbursts, which occurred on the 1st, 7th, 12th, 15th, 19th, 23rd, and 28th, also smashed the record for the shortest interval between eruptions – just over three days.
Scientists aren’t sure what’s behind the recent increase in activity, but the short answer is that this is just how geysers work.
“They’re mostly random and experience phases of alternating eruptive activity,” Michael Poland, the USGS scientist-in-charge of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory, wrote in an email to CNN. “So while fascinating, it’s not unusual, nor cause for concern.”
The Steamboat Geyser has experienced periods of more frequent eruptions in the past. The geyser saw an uptick in eruptions in the 1960s after being dormant for about 50 years, and also saw increased eruptions in the 1980s.
Until 2018, the Steamboat Geyser had been mostly calm for about 15 years.
Poland said there are a number of possibilities why Steamboat is erupting more frequently. One is that several heavy snow years in Yellowstone created more groundwater to feed geysers and hot springs. The Steamboat Geyser is starting to erupt more frequently just as spring snowmelt is at its peak, he said.
It’s a popular misconception that geyser eruptions are related to earthquake activity, but Poland said visitors to the national park have nothing to worry about. Steamboat’s frequent surges do not reflect any deeper changes in Yellowstone’s volcanic system: Geyser plumbing systems are within a couple hundred meters of the surface, while the magma system starts several thousand meters below.
Yellowstone National Park is home to about 10,000 hydrothermal features, including hot springs, geysers and mud pots, the National Park Service says. It has about 500 geysers as well as the largest concentration of active geysers in the world.
“The recent activity does a great job of emphasizing a particular aspect of Yellowstone – it is a dynamic place,” Poland said.