The future of geysers

Water’s fascinating in many ways — its origin, its cycles around the planet, its power, its vulnerability, its utility, its aesthetic beauty.

 Then there are the entertaining sideshows that water puts on, geysers among them.

It’s estimated that there are 1,000 of these natural wonders around the globe, most of them in and near Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, the best known of them being so regular in its performance  (roughly every 90 minutes) that it’s called Old Faithful.

 But Old Faithful’s history includes an experience that’s causing some people to worry about its future. The prospects at the extreme include the geyser going dry.

That happened before during a spell between 650 and 800 years ago. Last month the journal Geophysical Research Letters tied the hiatus to a prolonged period of warming and drought that reduced the supply of underground water that makes Old Faithful work.

The finding came from studying petrified wood from trees that survived at that early time only because they weren’t being drenched by Old Faithful’s average 200-degree water. Question: Why no hot water shooting 130 feet into the sky? Answer: Not enough rainwater water and snowmelt seeping into the ground to be heated by the Earth’s hot core and then sent back up in volcanic action.

That extraordinary Medieval warm period, which among other things also encouraged Viking exploration and settlement of Greenland, was brought on by a variety of developments that included reductions in volcanic activity, increases in solar radiation and changes in ocean currents.

Today, some climate-change deniers look to that period as proof that climate instability (a) comes and goes naturally and (b) without human cause. Few scientists agree to that second conclusion.

This blog is too limited in purpose to moderate the climate-change debate.  But this much can be said without doubt: geysers need water in order to work. If less water is going into the ground due to changes in rainfall patterns and extended droughts — as are occurring now — there’ll be less water available for geysers, not to mention water wells that billions of humans rely upon.

For that reason geysers make for more than a tourist attraction. They can also provide a lesson in science that has serious implications for the planet and the life that it supports.

© 2020 James A. Rousmaniere, Jr.

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