Despite more than a century of scrutiny, the inner workings of Old Faithful and other Yellowstone National Park geysers remain a mystery.
Scientists still hash over the basics, such as how water and steam pressurizes underground before a geyser erupts. Now, a high-tech look at Lone Star Geyser, one of the park's most punctual bubblers, could finally solve some of these long-standing puzzles. The research may also help scientists better understand and predict volcanic eruptions.
"The signals we record in geysers may put better constraints on the sources that generate those signals in volcanoes," said Shaul Hurwitz, a co-author of the study and a research hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, Calif.
Geysers are like miniature volcanoes, with tiny tremors that warn of coming blasts and deathly hot fluids fountaining in the air. The big differences between the two are the plumbing — water versus lava — and the punctuality. But the predictability of geysers makes them an ideal test bed for figuring out how eruptions work.
In 2010, Hurwitz corralled a baker's dozen of geoscientists from around the world for a weeklong experiment at Lone Star Geyser. They measured water discharge, ground motions, seismic waves and sound waves, and recorded high-speed visible and infrared video. Lone Star Geyser erupts every three hours.
The results help explain the processes controlling a geyser's graceful jets of water and steam, as well as what's happening underground before, during and after an eruption, the researchers said. The findings were published June 19 in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth.