Another year, another record set by the tallest active geyser in the world.
The Steamboat Geyser in Yellowstone National Park erupted 47 times this year, blowing past the record set in 2018 for the most eruptions recorded in a year.
Steamboat — whose major eruptions shoot water more than 300 feet into the air — broke a record in August when it erupted for the 33rd time. Since then, Steamboat has erupted 14 more times, bringing the total number of eruptions this year to 47, according to the US Geological Survey.
Like most geysers, Steamboat is known to be unpredictable. But this recent surge in eruptions is interesting because until 2018, the geyser had been mostly calm for about 15 years.
These periods of more frequent eruptions have happened before. Steamboat saw an uptick in eruptions in the 1960s after being dormant for about 50 years, and also saw increased eruptions in the 1980s.
Geysers are mostly random
Scientists aren’t sure what’s behind the recent increase in activity, but the short answer is that this is just how geysers work.
“They’re mostly random and experience phases of alternating eruptive activity,” Michael Poland, the USGS scientist-in-charge of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory, wrote in an email to CNN earlier this year. “So while fascinating, it’s not unusual, nor cause for concern.”
There are a number of possibilities why Steamboat is erupting more frequently, Poland said in July. One is that several heavy snow years in Yellowstone created more groundwater to feed geysers and hot springs. The Steamboat Geyser is starting to erupt more frequently just as spring snowmelt is at its peak, he said.
It’s a popular misconception that geyser eruptions are related to earthquake activity, but Poland said visitors to the national park have nothing to worry about. Steamboat’s frequent surges do not reflect any deeper changes in Yellowstone’s volcanic system: Geyser plumbing systems are within a couple hundred meters of the surface, while the magma system starts several thousand meters below.
Yellowstone National Park is home to about 10,000 hydrothermal features, including hot springs, geysers and mud pots, the National Park Service says. It has about 500 geysers as well as the largest concentration of active geysers in the world.
“The recent activity does a great job of emphasizing a particular aspect of Yellowstone — it is a dynamic place,” Poland said.