Story at a glance

  • Research published last week in the journal Geophysical Research Letters suggests a severe drought that took place some 800 years ago caused Old Faithful to stop erupting for decades.
  • Researchers estimate Old Faithful failed to erupt for close to a century after a sample that came from a tree indicated it grew for close to 80 years.
  • “Climate models project increasingly severe droughts by the mid-21st century, suggesting that geyser eruptions could become less frequent or completely cease,” the researchers wrote in the study’s abstract.

Yellowstone National Park’s Old Faithful has reliably spewed scalding hot water and steam more than 100 feet in the air every 35 to 120 minutes throughout the park's recorded history. 

Old Faithful is the biggest regular geyser in the national park, earning its name from explorers who, during the first official expedition to Yellowstone in 1870, were impressed by the size and frequency of its eruptions. 


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But research published last week in the journal Geophysical Research Letters suggests a severe drought that took place some 800 years ago caused Old Faithful to stop erupting for decades. 

Geologists behind the study analyzed petrified wood samples retrieved around the geyser and used radiocarbon to date when trees were actively growing on Old Faithful's mound. 

The hot water and high-alkaline environment of the famous geyser are too harsh for vegetation to grow, suggesting the tree specimens must date back to a time before the geyser regularly erupted. 

Researchers dated the tree remnants back to the 13th and 14th centuries during the end of what’s called the Medieval Climate Anomaly, a warm and dry period that affected the Northern Hemisphere causing severe droughts. 

“When I submitted the samples for radiocarbon dating I didn’t know whether they would be hundreds or thousands of years old,” Shaul Hurwitz, geologist at the U.S. Geological Survey, told Science magazine. 

“It was an ‘aha!’ moment when they all clustered within a hundred-year period in the 13th and 14th centuries,” he said. 

Researchers estimate Old Faithful failed to erupt for close to a century after a sample that came from a tree indicated it grew for close to 80 years. 

As climate change is exacerbating drought across the western U.S., researchers say Old Faithful could erupt less often in the future and might even stop altogether. 

“Climate models project increasingly severe droughts by mid-21st century, suggesting that geyser eruptions could become less frequent or completely cease,” the researchers wrote in the study’s abstract. 

The interval between Old Faithful’s eruptions has also increased. In the 1950s, the intervals occurred between 60 and 65 minutes, but since 2001, the intervals have increased to between 90 and 94 minutes, according to LiveScience. 


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Published on Oct 15, 2020