How and Why Do Geysers Erupt?

Monday, 15 December 2014: 10:35 AM
Michael Manga, University of California Berkeley, Berkeley, CA, United States
Geysers are features that produce episodic eruptions of water, steam and sometimes non-condensable gases. Natural geysers are rare, with fewer than 1,000 worldwide. They are more than curiosities and popular tourist attractions: they offer a direct window into geothermal processes, and may serve as a natural small-scale laboratory to study larger-scale eruptive process such as those at volcanoes, and other self-organized, intermittent processes that result from phase separation and localized input of energy and mass.

Despite > 200 years of scientific study, basic questions remain: Do eruptions begin from the bottom or top of the geyser? What controls eruption duration? Why do eruptions end? What are the required special subsurface geometries? Why are some geysers periodic, and others irregular? How and why do they respond to external influences such as weather, tides, and earthquakes?

This presentation will review new insights from field studies at Lone Star geyser, Yellowstone National Park, geysers in the El Tatio geyser field, Chile, and laboratory models. At Lone Star we infer that dynamics are controlled by thermal and mechanical coupling between the conduit and a deeper, laterally-offset reservoir (called a “bubble trap” in previous studies). At El Tatio, we measured pressure and temperature within geysers over multiple eruption cycles: this data document the heating of liquid water by steam delivered from below. The laboratory experiments reveal how episodic release of steam from a bubble trap prepares a conduit for eruption and can generate a range of eruption intensities. In all cases, the eruption initiation, duration and termination are controlled by the interaction between the accumulation and transport of steam and liquid, and modulated by the geometry of the geyser’s plumbing. Time series of thousands of eruptions confirm that internal processes control eruptions, with only pool geysers showing a sensitivity to air temperature; only very large stress changes influence eruptions.