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Steamboat Geyser

Steamboat geyser in the steam phase of eruption on March 16. the steam phase usually follows a few- to tens-of-minutes water phase and can last for hours to days. 

Behnaz Hosseini, NPS

Yellowstone Caldera Chronicles is a weekly column written by scientists and collaborators of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory. This week's contribution is from Michael Poland, geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey and Scientist-in-Charge of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory.

As you know from past issues of Yellowstone Caldera Chronicles, the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory is made up of several different agencies. Every two years scientists from the member institutions gather to discuss research results and plan future work. This year, the biennial YVO meeting took place May 7-8 in Mammoth Hot Springs, and scientific discussions were not the only goal. The occasion also provided a chance to conduct field work, deploy new equipment, and even interact with the community.

The meeting kicked off with scientific presentations that ranged in topic from the structure of the subsurface to how microbial life depends on geologic processes. For example, seismic studies have been able to peer into the plumbing system of Old Faithful and track movement of boiling water in the subsurface. Investigations of past lava flows indicate that some lava eruptions may be clustered in time, rather than spread out more evenly through time. Studies of thermophiles — microorganisms that live in hot springs — suggest that they benefit from hydrogen released along fractures and fault zones, so it's not too much of an exaggeration to say that earthquakes are an ingredient in the soup of life!

YVO scientists discussed the research and monitoring that should be the focus of the next several years. Of course, continued maintenance of existing monitoring networks, like seismic and deformation stations, is critical. The development of continuous gas sensors was also cited as key (in fact, the first continuous year-round gas sensor will hopefully be installed near Norris Geyser Basin in July). It was agreed that new lines of research should take advantage of existing data — like utilizing past earthquake observations to better map the subsurface. Improved ages on geologic units, like lava flows and ash deposits, are also needed to understand the geologic history of Yellowstone in more detail.

The diverse group of researchers also came to the conclusion that even more attention should be paid to hydrothermal systems, for which Yellowstone is rightly famous. The hydrothermal basins of Yellowstone, like Norris, are the interface between the magmatic heat sources beneath Yellowstone, the geologic units and water pathways that result in geysers and other thermal features, and the microbial life that colors Yellowstone's pools. Hydrothermal systems are a window into all of Yellowstone.

The week's events were not confined to the conference room. On the evening of May 7 about 70 members of the public gathered at the community center in Gardiner to ask questions and interact with YVO scientists. In an appropriate demonstration of the power of natural forces, many attendees, scientists and the public were late in arriving at the event because of a small rockfall that temporarily blocked the road between Yellowstone National Park and Gardiner. In spite of the delay, many questions were asked and answered in what hopefully was the first of many such gatherings in the future.

YVO scientists also took advantage of the time in Yellowstone to deploy more monitoring equipment. Some of the activities included:

  • Installing an array of temporary GPS stations around the park to supplement the existing continuous GPS stations. (Data from the temporary stations are not available in real time, but when retrieved in October will add valuable information concerning how the ground deformed over the summer.)
  • Deploying a number of small seismic sensors around Steamboat Geyser, which has now erupted five times in 2018, in hopes of learning more about the geyser's plumbing system, and also performing maintenance work on a number of the permanent seismic stations scattered around the park.
  • Conducting maintenance on temperature sensors at Norris, many of which failed over the winter and needed repair (These data, which are downloaded daily, can be viewed on YVO's monitoring page by zooming in to the Norris area and clicking on any of the thermometer symbols.)

As you might have heard, Steamboat erupted again, for the fifth time in 2018, in the early morning hours of May 13, so the recent work has already paid off.

Another wonderful season of research in Yellowstone is upon us. Stay tuned to learn more about new insights into how Yellowstone works, from mantle to microbe.