Old Faithful Geyser

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Imagine thousands of gallons of boiling water rushing forth from the earth. Shooting

toward the sky, the water forms a tall, steamy column � sometimes 180 feet high! When

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the water falls, it�s only a matter of time before another surge will appear. Old Faithful

geyser in Yellowstone National Park erupts regularly and has attracted sightseers since at

least 1870.

In 1870, a team of surveyors explored the area of northwestern Wyoming that would

become Yellowstone National Park. The team (known as the Washburn Expedition)

explored lakes, mountains, plants, and wildlife. They also observed many geothermal

features. While camping, they noticed a geyser that erupted about every hour. Since this

geyser was nearly as reliable as a wristwatch, the men named it Old Faithful.

A geyser is a hot spring that occasionally erupts; the term is derived from an Icelandic

word meaning �to gush�. Such gushers are rare. A geyser can become blocked by mineral

deposits, and tectonic activity (earthquakes) or human intervention can alter their

behavior. Only about 1,000 geysers are known to exist on Earth, and about half of those

are located in Yellowstone.

How does a geyser like Old Faithful work? A geyser, like any natural hot spring, has its

water heated by magma, or melted rock deep within the earth. The force of heat

(convection) pushes the water up through porous rocks. After steam and boiling water are

expelled, the cycle starts anew. Geysers� �schedules� widely differ; for example, some

erupt every ten minutes, and some erupt just twice a day.

In geological terms, Old Faithful is a cone geyser. The name refers to a cone-shaped

formation of minerals that has formed at the geyser�s mouth. This cone shapes the narrow

spray that bursts forth. In contrast, a fountain geyser has eruptions burst from an open


Observers have documented more than 137,000 Old Faithful eruptions, and people have

noticed changes in the eruption schedule since 1870. This might be a result of a 1998

earthquake changing underground water levels, or the cumulative effect of many tiny

quakes. The geyser has also been altered by vandalism; e.g. visitors have thrown items

into Old Faithful. At the start of the 21st century, a handy formula involves measuring the

duration of an eruption. If it lasts for 2.5 minutes or less, the next eruption will follow

about 65 minutes later. If it lasts for longer than 2.5 minutes, the geyser may be

�exhausted� until 92 minutes later.

How hot is Old Faithful�s water? In the 1980s and 1990s, scientists lowered

thermometers about 70 feet into the geyser. They measured a temperature of 244 degrees

Fahrenheit. Apparently, the temperature remained constant since a 1942 recording. Steam

temperatures reached 265 degrees. Right before eruption, water at the opening is about

204 degrees.

How much water is expelled? With each eruption, Old Faithful puts forth between 3,700

and 8,400 gallons. This forms a column that�s between 106 and 184 feet high. An average

eruption is about 130 feet tall.

Old Faithful is not Yellowstone�s largest geyser; that distinction belongs to Steamboat

Geyser. However, the landmark attracts the attention of most who visit Yellowstone.

Eruption times are posted at the park�s Visitor Center, and growing crowds are also a clue

that the time is near. Walkways and benches are provided for viewers.


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