Norris Geyser Basin is the hottest, oldest and most dynamic thermal area in the park. It is also the location of the world’s tallest active geyser.
When Steamboat Geyser erupts – which is entirely unpredictable – it can rocket a column of scalding water 90-120 meters into the air – two to three times the average height of Old Faithful. Only Waimangu Geyser in New Zealand has rocketed to greater heights, more than one hundred years ago.
The nearby Cistern Spring and Steamboat Geyser are linked underground. Normally, Cistern is a beautiful blue pool from which water continually overflows. However, when Steamboat Geyser has a major eruption, the deep pool of the Cistern Spring almost drains completely.
Water from the surface seeps into the earth through cracks in fractured rock, heated by the Magma – lying 3-8 miles (5-13 km) beneath Yellowstone’s surface. Hot Spring is formed.
Geysers are hot springs that periodically eject boiling water and steam into the air.
For a hot spring to erupt as a geyser, a narrow zone or constriction is crucial.
The constriction keeps water within the system from circulating to the surface for cooling. Eruptions occur as a chain reaction: Water, held within the geyser’s plumbing, becomes super-heated (heated beyond boiling) and rapidly expands in volume as it changes into steam; then steam bubbles force themselves – and the water above – past the constriction and up into the air.
Fascinating isn’t it? Perhaps I should mention that in the back area of the Norris Geyser Basin there exists a Minute Geyser, which used to erupt every 60 seconds. Nowadays Minute Geyser erupts irregularly, because the large west vent was clogged with rocks tossed in by early park visitors.
Fumaroles are hot springs without enough water to erupt or overflow. The small amount of water boils away, leaving only steam and hissing gases to escape.
Fumaroles in Norris Geyser Basin have measured up to 280 °F. The highest temperature yet recorded in any geothermal area in Yellowstone was measured in a scientific drill hole at Norris: 459°F (237°C) just 1,087 feet (326 meters) below the surface! There are very few thermal features at Norris under the boiling point (which is 199°F at this elevation).
In addition to being the hottest thermal area in the park. Norris Geyser Basin is also one of the most acidic.
Echinus is the largest acid-water geyser in the world. Its waters are almost as acidic as vinegar with a pH ranging from 3.3 to 3.6. Millions of spine-shaped deposits surround Echinus Geyser. Iron, arsenic, manganese, and aluminum are all found in the acidic fountain of water that showers the landscape. With each eruption, these metals help build miniature rust-colored sinter spines.
Acid geysers are extremely rare with the majority of the planet’s total being found here at Norris Geyser Basin.
Hardy microscopic lime-colored heat-loving algae thrive in the overflow channels of these warm acid waters. These and other microscopic life forms are links to the emergence of life on earth billions of years ago. They are also a focus of research in the fields of medicine and criminal investigation. Thermus aquaticus found in these runoff channels, produces an enzyme used in DNA ‘fingerprinting’ and testing for the virus that causes AIDS.
In June 2016, a 23- year old Oregon man, ignoring park signs, wandered 225 yards away from the boardwalk into an isolated area in Norris Basin. He slipped into a hot spring when bending over to check the temperature of the water. The recovery of his body was deterred by an overnight thunderstorm. They returned the very next day, only to find his body completely dissolved in the acidic spring.
And yet, somehow, in this extreme and unforgiving environment, life finds its way!
Next up, Yellowstone Falls and a Bear!