Recent water eruptions at Steamboat Geyser

Release Date:

Steamboat geyser, in Norris Geyser Basin within Yellowstone National Park, is world famous for being the tallest active geyser in the world.

It doesn't erupt that often, sometimes going decades between activity. When Steamboat does erupt, however, the water column can reach 300 feet in the air! And already in 2018, Steamboat has experienced three eruptions, although they have been relatively small compared to previous events.

Comparison of seismic signals from Steamboat geyser eruptions in 20...

Seismic signals recorded by station YNM at the Norris Geyser Basin museum building for eruptions of Steamboat geyser in 2013, 2014, and March-April 2018. The 2018 eruptions are much smaller in strength than the major eruptions of 2013 and 2014.

(Credit: Farrell, Jamie. Public domain.)

The first eruption of Steamboat since September 2014 occurred on March 15, 2018, starting at about 5:30 AM local time. No one was present to witness the onset of the water eruption, but the activity was detected by a nearby seismometertemperature gauges, and water discharge at a USGS stream gage. Yellowstone National Park staff and some guides arrived on site later and witnessed the steam phase of the geyser eruption. This is typical for Steamboat—a vigorous water eruption lasting minutes is followed by a steam phase that can last several hours.

The discharge at Steamboat caused nearby Cistern spring to drain—also typical—and the ground around the geyser was strewn with small rocks and mud that was ejected from the geyser. Based on seismicity, the geyser eruption was a small one compared to the major eruption of 2014.

But Steamboat wasn't done. Another geyser eruption occurred there on April 19 at about 4:30 PM local time, again recorded by water discharge and seismic signals. After the March eruption, Yellowstone National Park geologists installed a temperature sensor in the Steamboat outflow channel. That sensor recorded a temperature spike of 60 degrees Celsius due to the April 19 event! Unfortunately, no one was present to witness the eruption (the area is still closed to visitors until the snow melts and winter damage to trails can be repaired). In fact, a team of Yellowstone National Park geologists departed the area just 15 minutes before the geyser became active—bummer!

Based on the recorded seismic signal, the April 19 geyser eruption was stronger than that of March 15, but still much smaller than those of 2013 and 2014.

But again, Steamboat wasn't done! A third eruption of 2018 occurred on the morning of April 27. The activity appears to have started around 6:30 AM local time, as determined from seismic and water discharge data. An observer, who was driving by the region at around 8 AM, noted the activity as well.

The recorded seismic signal indicates that the April 27 eruption was still much smaller than those of 2013 and 2014, but it is the largest of the 2018 events. For context, the April Steamboat eruptions discharged about 200–400 cubic meters of water each. That's about 10 times the size of an Old Faithful eruption. The largest Steamboat eruptions—like those of 2013 and 2014—discharge more than twice as much as those of April.

Steamboat geyser in the steam phase of eruption on March 16, 2018...

Steamboat geyser in the steam phase of eruption on March 16, 2018. the steam phase usually follows a few- to tens-of-minutes water phase and can last for hours to days. National Park Service photograph by Behnaz Hosseini.

(Credit: Hosseini, Behnaz. Public domain.)

This is not the first time that multiple eruptions have occurred at Steamboat in a given year. The geyser was also active in March, April, and October of 2003. This was during a period of thermal disturbance in the Norris Geyser Basin, when the ground temperatures rose and several new thermal features formed. There were also numerous eruptions of the geyser separated by days to weeks in the early 1980s. The website geysertimes.org—a database maintained by geyser enthusiasts—hosts a lot of great information about activity at Steamboat, past and present!

Does the recent activity at Steamboat reflect a new thermal disturbance at Norris? It is impossible to say right now, but it will be something that is carefully monitored by YVO scientists in the days, weeks, and months to come. The monitoring will involve not only on-site temperature sensors, but also satellite images of thermal activity and additional seismometers. It is also possible that Steamboat is entering a period of more frequent, but relatively small, eruptions, like those that occurred in the early 1980s. Or, the current eruptions may simply reflect the randomness of geysers. Most geysers at Yellowstone have erratic behavior and do not erupt on a predictable basis, with a few notable exceptions (like Old Faithful).

Stay tuned for more information about water eruptions of Steamboat geyser and other thermal features in Yellowstone National Park!