Secret of Yellowstone Park's Old Faithful revealed at last
Underground plumbing shaped like a bagpipe causes the eruption every 92 minutes
Old Faithful, a geyser that erupts with a stream of water every 92 minutes, is one of Yellowstone National Park's top tourist attractions. Geologists have finally got a good peek at the geyser's underground workings, and they've determined that Old Faithful's underground plumbing looks more like a bagpipe than a flute.
A new study of the Yellowstone National Park geyser finds has revealed that a big chamber sits about 50 feet underground, located southwest of the geyser.
As reported in a study published online last month in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, the exact size can't be determined. Geologists estimate that the egg-shaped void is at least 50 feet tall and 60 feet wide. The cavern connects to a pipe angled about 24 degrees that feeds Old Faithfull's maw.
Tremors around the geyser from seismic reports reported in the 1990s revealed the shape of the cavern and geyser conduit. Popping gas bubbles also helped to create the tremors. The tremors map the shape of underground spaces and can also track water.
"We're able to locate with one to two-meter precision the place where the boiling occurs," Jean Vandemeulebrouck, a geophysicist at the University of Savoie in France reports. "We can see the water rising in the conduit."
Scientists say that after an eruption, there's a 15-minute recharge period with low water levels. For the next 50 minutes, water levels rise and seismic activity increases. The chamber never empties, but as steam bubbles fill the chamber, they can oscillate water in the conduit, eventually leading to a violent steam explosion. The bubble trap is what helps Old Faithful splash with smaller eruptions before fully blowing full steam ahead.
This recent discovery further disproves the long-held notion that big geysers erupt from long, narrow tubes. Researchers working in Kamchatka's Valley of the Geysers recently proved that the Russian geysers also erupted from conduits fed by caverns. As with Old Faithful, the geysers explode because of underground bubble traps.
Only about 1,000 geysers exist around the world. To form a geyser, there must abundant groundwater, a volcanic heat source to warm the water, open spaces so the water can escape and a way to trap bubbles.
Vandemeulebrouck is now collaborating with the U.S. Geological Survey to study another Yellowstone National Park geyser, called Lone Star. "I think this oscillating system is quite common in geysers," Vandemeulebrouck told OurAmazingPlanet.
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