Personalities and Myths of Geysers


Live Talk Archive
Personalities and Myths of Local Geysers
by Park Ranger George Heinz
Presented Live Online in September 2008

Park Ranger George Heinz: I’m gonna do a program right now. Just to tell you what we’re doing, I work in the park’s Web Office, and if you just joined us, I’m going live out over the Internet. We have a camera up here on this tree, it’s our Old Faithful live webcam and it’s watching me. I have a microphone on here somewhere. So this is going around the world. There are people in Europe watching, my parents in Kentucky, my nephew in Ohio, Ben. It’s a pretty neat thing. This is the last time we’re going to do this, this year. If you do go home and you watch the Old Faithful Webcam just look and we’ll put up a notice if we get a chance to do this again. So just watch that webcam periodically and we’ll put up some stuff. That will give you a chance to see some next time we do it.

My name is George Heinz. Again welcome from around the world. It’s a strange thing here knowing people are watching.

We just got done talking about why we have geysers and how they work. I really believe that some of the individual geysers here in this basin have a personality. I really want to talk about the geysers that can be seen from this webcam because there are people that are volunteers, one in Connecticut – the main two – one’s in Connecticut and one’s in England actually, and they have the password and the software to run this camera. We have volunteers that sit there and they do whatever work that they’re doing but they have Old Faithful there on the side and when a geyser on Geyser Hill or Old Faithful starts erupting, they can take this camera and zoom in on an eruption. So people all over the world can see some of these geysers.

If you didn’t see our first talk, Old Faithful is our most famous geyser but it’s not the biggest in this basin. There are about 150 geysers in the Upper Geyser Basin. Old Faithful is the most famous of those geysers. Giant Geyser which is further down the basin is probably the biggest. It has been fairly regular in the last couple of years. Not nearly regular where you could predict it but it has been going off quite a few times a year.

Then you have Grand Geyser which is right over the trees, sort of in that direction. It is a predictable geyser. It goes about twice a day. They’ll have a prediction of that in the visitor center.

Then you have Beehive Geyser which went at about 5 something this morning, right before sunup. It’s right across the river behind Old Faithful, sort of behind where I’m at. It’s a big old geyser.

Giantess, we’ll talk about her in just a few minutes. She’s over on Geyser Hill.

On Geyser Hill, which is where the people are walking, you see them on this hill back behind me. That’s on the other side of the Firehole River from where we are. Geyser Hill has about 40 geysers. If we took away Old Faithful, we took away all those other geysers down the basin that way, and you took away the Middle Geyser Basin – Midway – the Lower Geyser Basin, the Norris Geyser Basin, the West Thumb Geyser Basin, the Heart Lake Geyser Basin, the Shoshone Geyser Basin, if you took away all those geysers, Geyser Hill would still be the biggest geyser basin in the world. It’s 40 geysers on that hill. So it’s pretty amazing really.

I believe those geysers have a personality. If you see right over in this direction, you see a mound before you get to the trees, and earlier I saw it spittin’ a little, that is called the Lion Group. It’s sort of the protector of the hill. Lion is a different geyser. Like Old Faithful it’s a cone geyser, shooting out of a geyserite cone – a silica-based cone. Those tend to be more pressurized. They go straight up in the air. Lion goes into a series, it’s called. If it’s been about 6 or 8 hours since Lion has erupted and it starts erupting, that’s the first eruption in a series. The first eruption will last about 7 minutes. It might be about 90 feet tall. Then at the end of that 7 minutes it will go into a little steam phase where it shoots high-pressure steam up. Then, if it’s going to be a series and not just one individual eruption, about an hour and a half after that initial it will have a shorter, smaller eruption. About an hour to an hour and a half later and it might be 50 feet tall and it only lasts 4 or 5 minutes. Then maybe in another hour and a half it’ll have another smaller one. Then it will go through its interval again of 6 or 8 hours before the next initial and maybe the next series. So it’s up there protecting the hill.

There are actually 4 geysers there in the lion group. That’s one of the areas where they can take the function of each other. They can switch – a transference of function. If these 2 become active, these 2 aren’t. If these 2 are active, these 2 aren’t.

Probably the most popular geyser on the hill over there is called Beehive. Beehive went at 5 something this morning. It goes about once a day. It could possibly go before dark again this afternoon. So if you’re in the basin keep an eye out for Beehive. Probably the most impressive geyser, my favorite anyway, in the basin. About once a day, Beehive goes up to about 218 feet. It’s under high pressure but Beehive gives us a warning if it is going to erupt. Like Old Faithful spits a little, to relieve the pressure, Beehive has another geyser next to it called the Beehive Indicator. The Beehive Indicator will start erupting. It’s about a 10 to 15 foot eruption about 10 to 20 to 25 minutes before Beehive. So this little bitty geyser starts erupting and everybody that lives around here or comes here to study the geysers, they get on their little radios and say, “The Beehive Indicator is going”. So everybody will go over there to try to see Beehive. You can actually stand almost right next to it. It’s an amazing thing. If you ever get a chance to be on Geyser Hill when Beehive is erupting, boy it’ll change your world. If Beehive went as often as Old Faithful, we wouldn’t even know about Old Faithful because it would be the most famous geyser in the world.

Then you have another small geyser that I like to call the teenager of the hill. It’s really straight behind me down near the river, or just up on the flats above the river, and it’s called Plume. Plume is a teenager because it is a relatively new geyser. In 1922 a little steam explosion formed a crack on the hill and a new geyser started. Plume throughout my time here, some summers it doesn’t go at all, some summers it’s every hour, every 20 minutes, every 30 minutes. I think it’s about every 30 minutes now. It’s a new geyser, started again in 1922 when it was about 40 or 50 feet tall and it was shaped like the plume of a feather. In 1972 another little steam explosion changed it again. It doesn’t erupt as tall now, maybe 20 or 25 feet. It’s also a trickster because when it does its initial burst you’ll turn around and say, “Hey look, it’s a geyser” and by the time the person you just told that looks at it, it’s stopped. It just goes that quick. But if you wait a second it will go again. It does a couple bursts about every 30 minutes. It’s a pretty cool little geyser and you can also stand pretty close to it when it erupts.

The grand old lady of the hill is where the steam is at the top of the mound, right before the trees, directly behind me. That is Giantess. Giantess is different than these other geyser we’ve been talking about . Giantess is a fountain geyser. Old Faithful, Beehive, Lion - they’re all cone geysers. Fountain geysers erupt out of a pool of water. Instead of spitting like Old Faithful does to drop the pressure, those pools start to overflow. That drops the pressure and lets the geyser erupt. Giantess erupted last, I think on April 8th or May 8th, somewhere early summer. It’s only gone once I believe this year. Maybe twice, I think it went over the winter. I’m not sure exactly when that was. It usually goes a couple times a year. It’s a massive geyser. Since it’s a fountain geyser, all that water is not directed out of a cone straight up. It can shoot at many different angles. It’s a burst this way, a burst that way. It’s pretty impressive. It also shows up as an earthquake on the USGS. The first time I saw Giantess erupt I was in the Old Faithful Inn there about 29 – 28 years ago and it shook the building. It’s a massive geyser and you can feel the ground around here shakin’. It’s the only geyser here that can register on the Richter Scale as an earthquake.

Again there are 40 geysers over here. The most famous geyser is on this side and that’s Old Faithful. Old Faithful goes somewhere around 18 times a day maybe. Some of the myths – I get asked all the time, people come up to me and they say “When I was here when I was a kid, Old Faithful was a lot bigger”. No, when you were a kid, you were smaller.


Old Faithful is doing about what it’s always been doing. To be fair, if you came here back 50 or 40 years ago, the sidewalk that’s over there was the main road. So you would have driven right through the geyser basin, passed Morning Glory Pool, passed Castle Geyser, and you would have pulled up in between the inn and where we are and you would have parked out here. You were able to go a little closer to Old Faithful. If you get a chance, watch Old Faithful from a distance, over on Geyser Hill or down basin. It’s a much more impressive geyser when you see it from a distance. It’s a big geyser. Old Faithful has registered as high as 184 feet. An average eruption is about 130. That last one was about 140 feet so it was above average. About 8,000 gallons of water comes out each eruption – up to. The water on Old Faithful is a little over 200 degrees F. Water boils at this elevation at 199. All geysers are boiling. If it is erupting as a geyser, throwing water in the air, it has to be boiling or that superheated pocket of water just turns back into liquid before it gets to the surface. It’s got to be boiling at the surface. So 199 is the boiling point. Old Faithful is about 202 – 203, I think, at the surface.

That’s why we have geysers. One more thing, I had a person email me wanting to know more about you know we get asked, “You know Old Faithful used to be almost every hour. Every hour on the hour.” You know, not really. It used to average more like every 60 or 70 minutes. But Old Faithful is a bi-modal geyser. It has 2 modes. It has a short mode and a long mode. Historically, most of the eruptions were short when we first started watching, you know 80 years ago. It had more shorts than longs and that’s how they predict it. When Old Faithful starts erupting a ranger at the visitor center will open a window. They’ll put a stopwatch on that eruption and they’ll estimate the height. It’s the stopwatch that’s the most important. A short eruption will stop before 2 ½ minutes. So if it stops before 2 ½ minutes they’ll write it down as a “short”. They’ll predict the next one 65 minutes from the previous start. If it goes longer than 2 ½ minutes, that’s a “long”. They’ll predict the next one 90 minutes from the previous start. That’s why we only have one prediction at a time. You have to watch it to predict it. You have to see if it’s going to give you a short or a long. Almost all of them are “longs” these days. Every now and then it will throw you a “short”. If you’re just trying to add 90 minutes on top of 90 minutes on top of 90 minutes, you can get way out-of-whack pretty quickly. So we’ve got to watch it to predict it. Old Faithful again is not the biggest, just the most famous. And geysers do have personalities.

Thanks for listening. If you’re back home watching, thank you very much. Maybe we’ll join you again sometime. Thank you all very much.


I’ll answer questions if anybody has any.

Audience member: How do you measure the volume of the eruption?

Ranger George: Umm. Measure of the volume… Ummm, you get a mathematician in here. I’m not sure of the exact steps they do that. We do have a sensor on it and we can tell when it erupts – a data logger. It measures the difference in the temperature of the runoff channel. It gives a spike when the temperature goes off so we can tell Old Faithful erupted a couple of minutes ago. I’m not sure exactly how they’ve measured the volume. Math was not my strong suit.

Audience member: Did the Indians that lived here have some beliefs about what was causing the geysers and so forth?

Ranger George: A question about Native Americans that were here. You know for a long time everybody believed that the Native Americans were suspicious of these things and afraid of them. We really don’t think so. Yellowstone, just because of its geography, it’s a high mountain plateau. Most Native American tribes and I think there are 26 tribes that are considered the associated tribes of Yellowstone –maybe the beginnings of those tribes, their oral histories come back here. Most of them used this area as a hunting and fishing ground. They would come up in the summer. They would hunt and fish and then they would go back to wherever they lived. We don’t believe today that they were really that superstitious and afraid of them. I’m sure there were individuals that were but as a whole, we don’t believe that.

Audience member: Last week we were at Craters of the Moon (National Park). One of the rangers mentioned something about this hotspot having something to do with the lava at Craters of the Moon.

Ranger George: We have a question about Craters of the Moon and its association with Yellowstone. Craters of the Moon – it’s right in here. So this orange thing here represents the same – they’re all the same. The continent has moved. The hotspot that is below Yellowstone, our continent is moving over that hotspot. So at one point the hotspot was right below Craters of the Moon in Idaho. Today it’s under Yellowstone. Someday we might have the next Yellowstone up here. So if you live in Billings, Montana… Someday - geologically speaking and that’s probably a million years away.

Ranger George: Any other questions? Well thanks for listening and you-all got to participate in an historic event here, these live programs. Thank you very much.

Audience members: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you, that was great. Thank you very much.

Visitor: What is the depth of the magma chamber?

Ranger George: 3 to 6 miles is the range they tell us.

Visitor: In particular this area?

Ranger George: Under the caldera of Yellowstone it’s 3 to 6 miles.

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