Postdoc Sahand Hajimirza’s collaborative research on Yellowstone’s Steamboat Geyser highlighted

Steamboat Geyser in Yellowstone National Park is active again!

Considered the worlds tallest active geyser, the 400 foot jet of water can be tough for the average tourist to witness, with quiescent periods lasting as long as 50 years.  Yet since 2018, Steamboat has erupted more times than it has in the last half century.

Image and caption from Berkeley News: A 2019 eruption of Steamboat Geyser in the Norris Geyser Basin of Yellowstone National Park. The geyser’s first documented activity was in 1878, and it has turned off and on sporadically since, once going for 50 years without erupting. In 2018 it reactivated after a three-and-a-half-year hiatus, for reasons that are still unclear. (UC Berkeley photo by Mara Reed)

Sahand Hajimirza is on the team (with lead author Dr. Mara Reed and senior author Professor Michael Manga from University of California at Berkeley) that wanted to know why.

Geysers, from the name describing water that erupts from the ground, have some thermodynamic similarities to volcanic eruptions.  Yet geyser eruptions, which range in size from bubbling pools to extraordinary skyward jets such as Steamboat, are much rarer than volcanoes, and according to the U.S. Geological survey, number less than a thousand in the world, with most of them found in Yellowstone National Park.

During the 2019 CIDER (Cooperative Institute of Dynamic Earth Research hosted by UC Berkeley), which focused on volcanic and hydrothermal eruptions, a group of researchers set out to study the reawakening of Steamboat. Sahand’s expertise in the dynamics of volcanic eruption helped the group to address what makes Steamboat the tallest active geyser in the world.

Six members of the science team assembled around a table in McCone Hall at UC Berkeley in the summer of 2019, at work on the Steamboat Geyser project. Clockwise from lower left, Carolina Munoz-Saez, Anna Barth, Sahand Hajimirza, Tarsilo Girona, Sin-Mei Wu and Majid Rasht-Behesht. The three questions and hypotheses the team analyzed are on the greenboard, while the fluid dynamics equations that describe a geyser eruption are on the whiteboard. (UC Berkeley photo by Michael Manga)

Sahand builds thermodynamical models that show how the thermal energy of water and steam drives geyser eruptions. His model, published in December in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests geysers with a deeper water reservoir, that directly feeds the eruption have taller plumes.  The model hypothesis was verified when tested against a worldwide database of geyser plume height and reservoir depth, and then compared with data collected from Steamboat.

Sahand says the work is not finished; there are several questions that are left unanswered. Scientists still don’t know what initiated the current eruption phase that started in 2018. The other is more basic- why do geysers erupt?

“We know geysers need water, heat and a proper plumbing system. But we still do not know how the combination of these three factors lead to an eruption, “ says Sahand.

While the study rules out processes such as recent earthquakes or significant external water source (such as snowmelt) as factors for the sudden increase in activity, the mystery will keep scientists and Sahand looking for the answers.

For more information about the paper and other press coverage, go to the following links:

 

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