Yellowstone National Park’s famous Old Faithful geyser is famously reliable, firing a jet of scalding water and steam high into the air some 17 times a day at 60 to 110-minute intervals.
But new research suggests that 800 years ago a severe drought caused this geyser, which was once somewhat hyperbolically known as “Eternity’s Timepiece,” to stop erupting altogether for many decades, reports Colin Barras for Science. When taken with climate model predictions of increasingly severe droughts, the findings could mean that America’s most dependable geyser will erupt less often or stop completely in the future.
Researchers arrived at the new findings, published last week in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, by studying 13 chunks of petrified wood found on Old Faithful’s mound. Trees can’t survive the geyser’s blasts of super-heated, alkaline water, so finding trees growing on Old Faithful’s mound is a sign that its regularly scheduled eruptions were at one point on hiatus. When researchers tested the tree remnants, they dated back to around 1230-1360 A.D., reports Catherine Meyers for Inside Science.
“When I submitted the samples for radiocarbon dating I didn’t know whether they would be hundreds or thousands of years old,” Shaul Hurwitz, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and first author of the new paper, tells Science. “It was an ‘aha!’ moment when they all clustered within a hundred-year period in the 13th and 14th centuries.”
One specimen was large enough to allow Hurwitz and his team to estimate it grew for some 80 years, suggesting Old Faithful stopped erupting for nearly 100 years sometime between the 13th and 14th centuries.
That historical period coincided with what’s known as the Medieval Climate Anomaly, according to Inside Science, which was a period of prolonged warm, dry weather for many parts of the world.
“It’s the time when we have things like grapes growing in Northern England and a loss of sea ice that allowed people to discover Greenland,” Cathy Whitlock, a paleoclimatologist at Montana State University who wasn’t involved in the research, tells Inside Science. “We know in Yellowstone it was both warmer and drier. The upper tree line was higher up the slopes and there is evidence of more fires during that period.” The drier climate lowered stream flows and caused extreme drought conditions to persist for decades, she adds.
Jamie Farrel, a geologist at the University of Utah who wasn’t involved in the study, tells Science he also finds this explanation plausible. “If you have prolonged drought and there isn’t enough water to feed these systems, then features like Old Faithful might sometimes stop erupting,” he tells Science.
Today, human-caused climate change is exacerbating droughts in the Yellowstone region, per Inside Science. Hurwitz and other researchers published a paper in 2008 showing decreased precipitation in recent decades may have added a minute or two to the time between Old Faithful’s eruptions. If the climate continues to dry out, as climate models predict it will, the researchers write that Old Faithful’s “geyser eruptions could become less frequent or completely cease.”
If Old Faithful is added to the list of climate change’s casualties, Maxwell Rudolph, a geophysicist at the University of California, Davis who wasn’t involved in the study, tells Science that “the extinction of this natural treasure would be a profound loss.”
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