Geysers are very rare. Yet, a few hundred exist in Yellowstone, more than anywhere else on Earth, in fact more than the rest of the world combined! You actually only need a few things to have geysers. Obviously you need water. But you also need heat. The heat source here is the Yellowstone volcano. Magma underground heats up the water as it travels through cracks and fissures and the hotter water rises to the surface.
But you need more than just hot water to have a geyser. Geysers need a special plumbing system. Since the Yellowstone volcano is in the middle of a continent, we have a different type of lava than most other volcanoes. We have rhyolite which is full of silica. The hot water can dissolve out the silica and then re-deposit it along the cracks and fissures on the ground creating a water-tight seal and allowing pressure to build.
Yellowstone also has you. As a national park, this area’s protected and that keeps the geysers from being developed for energy production. In other geyser fields around the world, they have not been protected and have been damaged by people and development. Many no longer erupt naturally.
Yellowstone National Park belongs to you. We’ve been protecting it for years. It’s up to all of us to ensure that the beauty and natural processes we admire today continue to be protected for generations to come.
How do you tell geysers and hot springs apart? Geysers erupt—or shoot their water and steam into the air periodically. But when a fountain geyser which erupt from a pool, isn’t erupting, it can look a lot like a hot spring.
Look for clues around the edges. Hot spring pools usually have a ledge or walls of sinter built around them because as the water level fluctuates, it leaves behind silica deposits. The edges may even be scalloped or lacy.
Beadwork or pebbly-looking sinter indicates a geyser. As the water splashes with each eruption, it deposits silica, creating a bumpy appearance. Cone geysers are often decorated with this beadwork as well. Rounded stones in the water around a thermal feature are good indication that it erupts. Geyser eggs, which look like river stones, are also formed from water movement and silica deposition.
Dark-colored algae and bacterial mats living in a feature tell you that the water isn’t hot enough to be a geyser or that it hasn’t erupted in some time.
So whether or not there is a sign naming the feature as a hot spring or geyser you may be able to figure out for yourself whether or not it erupts by looking at the surrounding sinter and bacteria mats. And even if there is a sign, remember, because features are always changing, signs can be misleading.
Though the geyser basins may look like barren moonscapes, they’re often full of life! Don’t assume the vivid colors around the hot springs are minerals. There are some microscopic organisms that actually thrive in extremely hot water. They’re called thermophiles.
These communities of bacteria, algae and archaea live in the runoff water from the hot springs. In fact, different colors indicate different communities that thrive at different temperatures. Usually the colorless and lightest colors are closest to the center of the spring where the water is hottest. As the water gets further away from the spring and cools, different, darker organisms set up shop. Some even thrive in acidic springs!
Tiny black ephydrid flies can often be seen feeding on the bacterial mats or laying their salmon-colored clumps of eggs so their larvae can feed on the microbes. They then become food for spiders, mites, beetles, and dragonflies and the food chain continues with birds like killdeer and swallows. Even bison, elk and other large animals or at least their tracks and scat are seen in the hydro-thermal basins.
Some plant species such as hot springs panic grass and Ross’s bentgrass live in the extreme environs of the geyser basins, sometimes with the help of thermo-tolerant fungi. Yellow monkey flower and purple fringed gentian are commonly seen as well. In fact, the thermal basins can create microclimates, extending the growing season for some plants. Many of the organisms and plants are the subject of ongoing research.
We can only guess what we may uncover in the future. These thermophile communities are a reminder that we have much to learn about Yellowstone’s wonders. With continued preservation of the geyser basins, not only will we be able to marvel at the beautiful colors, but also preserve opportunities for scientific research and exciting new discoveries.
Geyser basins are fascinating, hauntingly beautiful places. They are also dangerous. Geysers are quite rare and there aren’t many places like Yellowstone on Earth.
With all the splashing, spurting, steaming and sometimes slopping thermal features, there’s a lot to take in. The sights, sounds and smells are new to most visitors. Myriad colors of bacteria and algae can be vivid and appealing, but beware, they can be encased in deadly steam and acid.
Boardwalks are provided to protect you and keep you safe as you view the hydrothermal features. They also keep you from damaging the fragile features. Be careful not to step off the platforms because the crust of the earth surrounding the geysers and springs can be very thin and you could step into boiling water just below the surface. Severe burns, even death, could result from exposure to hot steam or scalding water or acid.
Be mindful of wildlife in the geyser basins as well. If they are too close to the boardwalks or trails, you should go back the way you came so that you don’t approach them too closely. Never step off the boardwalks. Keep in mind that park animals, including bison, have no problem stepping up onto boardwalks (even over railings) and they can move quickly.
To obey the law and keep yourself safe, stay on the boardwalks and keep your distance from wildlife. Enjoy the beauty surrounding you but please be safe.
Does Old Faithful Geyser erupt on schedule when the temperature is 40 below zero (F)? Do rainy periods or dry spells effect geyser eruptions? Watch this video to learn the answers. Duration: 2 minute 29 seconds
Working as a ranger at Old Faithful was one of the thrills of my life. There’s no question that Old Faithful and the Upper Geyser Basin are icons of our National Park System. Working here gave me the opportunity to learn some of the individual personalities of the geysers.
One of my favorite shifts was called, Geyser Predict. On that shift, we would be required to go out into the basin early, before the visitor center opened and predict when some of the more regular geysers where going to erupt.
Predicting geyser eruptions is not an exact science. Most predictions are based on when the previous eruption occurred. It’s statistics really. Some large geysers have equipment that measures the temperature in the run-off channels and by down loading that information, the rangers can see when the last eruption happened.
We would often get asked about how the weather affects geyser intervals. Does Old Faithful still erupt when it is -40 degrees outside? The answer is yes. The outside temperature doesn’t seem to have much effect on when a geyser will erupt.
But, some other aspects of weather may influence geyser activity. New studies by scientists at the U. S. Geological Survey seem to indicate that both long and short term wet and dry periods could influence geysers. The thinking is that geysers like Old faithful may have shorter intervals during wet periods. Aurum Geyser seems more active after a rain or hail storm.
Wind may also play a role for some geysers. It has long been thought that Daisy Geyser would have a longer interval on windy days. Beehive Geyser has a tendency to erupt early in the day; wind may also influence that trend. The direction of the wind seems to be an important factor.
If geysers interest you, check out the folks at the Geyser Observation and Study Association. They have many volunteers that work closely with the park’s rangers and geologists to help us keep statistics and understand these unique features. (www.gosa.org)
So, the next time you are fortunate enough to be waiting for a geyser to erupt, take notice of what else could be influencing that eruption. And remember, geysers are never late and geysers are never early and predictions are just predictions.