Geysers are rare features — only about 1,000 exist around the world. To form a geyser, there must be a volcanic heat source to warm water, plentiful groundwater, open spaces in the overlying rock for the water to escape, and a way to trap bubbles.
Boiling water rising from deep in a hydrothermal system will always contain some bubbles of steam. When the rising water meets a bubble trap, the steam bubbles start to gather in place, displacing water. Eventually, enough steam collects that it can push water ahead of it, up through the remaining channels to the surface, causing a violent steam explosion that bursts into the sky as a fountain.
The interplay between how quickly bubbles accumulate in a trap and the geometry of a geyser conduit affects the time between eruptions, Belousov said. Geysers that trap bubbles slowly go longer between eruptions, and vice versa.
Belousov suggests that the same model could also apply at Yellowstone. Geologists have long thought that long, narrow conduits in rhyolite lava feed the valley's famous geysers, including Old Faithful. Sinter, or silica rock, built up in the conduits, forming bubble traps, scientists suggested. But Belousov thinks Yellowstone's geysers may instead be plumbed through moraines, massive rock piles left behind by glaciers that once covered the region.
"Moraines have very similar mechanical properties to landslides, so this explains why there are so many geysers in Yellowstone," he said.
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