BILLINGS, Montana — Yellowstone National Park’s Steamboat Geyser sped up its eruption cycle earlier in June, setting a new mark for recorded intervals between eruptions.
The geyser’s shortest rest between noted eruptions occurred June 15 when it blasted steam and water into the air only three days, 3 hours and 48 minutes after its previous spouting June 12.
Earlier quick recharges included a 1982 eruption after only four days, 19 hours and 43 minutes. On June 15, 2018, it went off after four days, 15 hours, 49 minutes. And on Sept. 12, 2018, it gushed forth after four days, 18 hours and 3 minutes.
Why have the eruptions sped up?
“I wish I could tell you,” said Michael Manga, of the University of California, Berkeley, who studies geysers. “I think this is what makes Steamboat, and geysers in general, so fascinating is that there are these questions we can’t answer.”
Michael Poland, scientist in charge of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory, said the irregularity of Steamboat is just “a geyser being a geyser.” Looking back at the record of recent eruptions, he noted that its intervals are always variable. Last July, Steamboat went 20 days before erupting.
“Steamboat clearly has a mind of its own,” he said, “and right now it’s putting its independence on display.”
Manga added that it “should trouble everyone” that scientists can’t better explain geysers, since they are similar in many respects to their much more dangerous cousin, the volcano.
Geyser observers Bill and Carol Beverly posted on the Geyser Times website marking the precedent-setting June 15 eruption by noting, “Unbelievably heard and felt from bookstore during thunderstorm.” They added that the geyser was “Very tall and muddy” when it spouted to life close to 5 p.m.
“Also of note, Steamboat has been pausing for a second and restarting water phase, which I’ve been told is a rare occurrence,” said Big Sky photographer Ryan Molde in an email. “In addition, it’s been going off for more time recently than it had been, and one of the park employees said the June 15 event was also quite high.”
He also said one of the rocks ejected by the geyser struck a sign near the viewing platform, shattering the wooden post.
Seemingly unfazed by its new distinction, Steamboat quickly recharged again and followed up on June 18 — three days, nine hours and 40 minutes later — with its 55th eruption since last March. Number 56 came Sunday, June 23, only four days, 10 hours and 26 minutes later.
Steamboat’s feat should be noted with an asterisk. Although the geyser was first reported exploding in 1878, eruption records only go back to 1982. That’s a pretty short period considering geysers have been active since the end of the last ice age about 14,000 years ago.