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Scientists Unlock Old Faithful's Big Secret

The Yellowstone geyser is fed by a large cavern
By Neal Colgrass,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 21, 2013 6:48 AM CDT
Scientists Unlock Old Faithful's Big Secret
Old Faithful in action.   (Shutterstock)

(Newser) – Mystery solved: Scientists say they've finally figured out why Old Faithful erupts with super-hot water and steam about every 90 minutes, Our Amazing Planet reports. Seismic records show that under the Yellowstone geyser, a large egg-shaped chamber is connected to the mouth of Old Faithful by a sort of pipe. After every eruption, water levels rise in the chamber and send steam bubbles into the conduit—which creates a "bubble trap" that leads to the eventual steam explosion.

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What's the big deal? The finding helps discredit an old idea that large geysers are fed by long, narrow tubes (Our Amazing Planet describes Old Faithful's "plumbing [as] more like a bagpipe than a flute"). Researchers made a similar finding earlier this year in Russia, where geysers are also fed by caverns that create bubble traps. Another neat fact: Scientists were able to map Old Faithful's cavern with seismic records because gas bubbles create tremors when they pop. And there's good news for those eager to visit it: Sequestration forced the park to postpone its annual snow-plowing efforts, pushing the opening date to April 26; but the Billings Gazette reports that the road to Old Faithful opened Friday, due to a happy combination of good weather, less snow than expected, and help from the state's Department of Transportation. (Read more Yellowstone National Park stories.)

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