Geysers have entranced observers from time immemorial with their sudden yet often predictable appearances, explosive power and the ability to conjure up rainbows on a cloudless day. Though the mechanics of geysers is better understood these days, their unique beauty remains one of Mother Nature’s most wondrous phenomena.
1. The Great Geyser, Iceland
The Great Geyser, located in west-central Iceland’s Haukadalur valley, appropriately leads off this tribute to geysers as it was the first such phenomenon described in print. Though the earliest reports date from the 18th century, geologists estimate the Great Geyser has been active for up to 10,000 years.
The power and frequency of the Great Geyser have varied over time and seem to be affected by earthquakes and volcanism in the region – frequent occurrences in their own right. Since 2003, the Great Geyser has erupted thrice daily in spectacular fashion, with jets of boiling water shooting 70 meters high or more.
2. Fly Geyser, Nevada, USA
Located on privately-owned land in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, the Fly Geyser is a rare example of human meddling with nature resulting in something uniquely beautiful. A well drilled in 1916 provided convenient egress for superheated water from deep within the Earth, rendering the well useless for irrigation purposes.
As time passed, the constant flow of mineral-rich water built up a series of miniature mountain-like cones and below them, and extensive field of terraces and pools. The geyser owes its brilliant contrasting colors to both the minerals in the water and several species of Thermopile and Hyperthermophile (heat-loving) bacteria that live in it.
The Fly Geyser is growing both in size and in prominence: organizers of the annual Burning Man Festival held nearby are attempting to purchase the part of the Fly Ranch containing the geyser, which would certainly provide greater access though at a questionable cost.
3. Waimangu Geyser, New Zealand
Waimangu Geyser wasn’t just the biggest geyser in the Taupo Volcanic Zone on New Zealand’s North Island; it was the highest geyser in the whole world… for a very short time, at least. Waimangu Geyser‘s eruptions were so powerful, the explosive bursts of hot water blasted mud and rocks along with it, at up to 450 meters (almost 1,500 ft) in height! “Live fast, die young” was Waimangu Geyser’s motto, however, and although its prodigious blasts boosted into legendary status, it was only active between 1900 and 1904.
Eyewitnesses to Waimangu (Maori for “black water”) Geyser were stunned by its power; in 1903 four tourists were killed by a sudden giant eruption. The wife of scientist Humphrey Haines described a January 1901 eruption as follows: “There was a small burst, followed by a gigantic explosion, far exceeding in magnitude anything previously witnessed. A vast column of black water was projected upwards, rising in an apparently solid body … Then for a moment it seemed to pause, but in another instant its apex burst outwards and a torrent of inky water streaked downwards to meet and lose itself in the snowy billows which rolled majestically upwards.”
4. Castle Geyser, Wyoming, USA
Of the roughly one thousand known geysers around the world, approximately 500 can be found in Yellowstone National Park. One of the most distinctive is Castle Geyser, named (in 1870) for its turreted, crenellated cone. Once thought to be as much as 15,000 years old, recent testing has indicated Castle Geyser’s first eruption took place roughly 1,000 years ago.
Castle Geyser is a semi-regular geyser with a 10 to 12 hour eruption cycle. In a typical eruption, the geyser spurts boiling hot water up to 90 feet (27 m) high for about 20 minutes. This is followed by a pure steam eruption that can last up to 40 minutes and which is said to be very noisy!
5. Velikan Geyser, Russia
One of continental Eurasia’s only two geyser fields, the Valley of Geysers (“Dolina Geiserov”) located on Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula boasts the second largest concentration of geysers in the world after Yellowstone Park. The Velikan (“giant”) Geyser is one of the field’s 30 named geysers. Erupting regularly every 6 to 8 hours but for only about a minute each time, the Velikan Geyser blasts superheated water over 25 meters (over 80 ft) into the air.
In June of 2007, a massive mudslide triggered by an earthquake buried two-thirds of the Valley of Geysers beneath tons of rock, soil and rubble. Many of the valley’s curious diagonal geysers were lost but the Velikan Geyser was unscathed.
6. Geyser Andernach, Germany
Geysers aren’t usually family-friendly but Geyser Andernach isn’t your usual geyser: it’s cold! Even better, it’s carbonated – bring your own schnapps. The world’s highest cold water geyser is the centerpiece of the Namedyer Werth Nature Reserve, located near the city of Andernach in the western German state of Rhineland-Palatinate.
Cold geysers are powered by dissolved Carbon Dioxide. When a well or other outlet is provided, the pressurized water bursts upwards much like the contents of a shaken bottle of soda.
7. Strokkur Geyser, Iceland
Strokkur Geyser is the poster child for Icelandic geysers, erupting copiously and frequently: as often as every 4 to 8 minutes. It’s also one of the country’s highest geysers, a significant attribute for a wide-based fountain geyser.
Strokkur Geyser’s history has been dependent on earthquakes and local volcanic conditions. The geyser was first noted in 1789 when an earthquake opened its throat. In 1963, Iceland’s Geyser Committee (yes, they have such a body) advised unblocking the geyser’s conduit from beneath – the “operation” was successful and Strokkur Geyser has been performing regularly ever since.
8. El Tatio, Chile
El Tatio (“The Grandfather”) is located in northern Chile and at 4,200 meters (13,780 ft) above sea level is one of the world’s highest geyser fields. Though few of El Tatio’s individual geysers spurt more than a few feet high (the steam rises much higher), the overall effect of the field in full blast mode, back dropped by stunning Andes mountain scenery, is both ethereal and otherworldly.
The Chilean government has attempted on several occasions to build a geothermal power plant on the site of El Tatio but resistance from the public and from local businesses dependent on the tourist trade have scuttled such efforts time and time again.
9. Lady Knox Geyser, New Zealand
The Lady Knox Geyser, located in New Zealand’s Taupo Volcanic Zone, is one of the country’s few geological features that doesn’t have a Maori name due to it’s not being discovered until the early 20th century. Prisoners held at a nearby jail accidentally induced the geyser to erupt after adding soap to the natural hot water source in order to wash their clothes.
Soap is a surfactant that lowers the surface tension of water, a property that continues to be used to coax the Lady Knox Geyser into action. “Performances” are held daily at 10:15am and the geyser obligingly spurts upwards to a height of 20 meters (65+ ft) for up to an hour.
10. Old Faithful, Wyoming, USA
What, you thought we’d leave out the world’s most famous geyser, Old Faithful? Oh ye of little faith! Yellowstone Park’s star attraction is a sight to see, though beware of the common misconception that it erupts every hour, on the hour. The geyser’s eruptions can be predicted with a fair amount of accuracy but one must consider the length of the previous eruption: the greater the duration of the eruption, the longer the interval before the next one. Intervals between eruptions can last as long as 2 hours and as short as 35 minutes.
Old Faithful jets to maximum height ranging from 90 to 184 feet; though in long eruptions its height can be much lower over the final few minutes. Odds are, if someone is going see one geyser in their lifetime and don’t happen to live near one, Old Faithful is the geyser they’ll see. It’s location in one of America’s oldest and most popular national parks means that extensive infrastructure has been established to serve generations of geyser-watchers. Old Faithful may not be off the beaten track – anything but – but it’s never failed to please its many admirers.
Of course, Old Faithful never sleeps as tourists must, so one way to observe the geyser in an uncrowned setting is to go very late at night or very early in the morning. An added bonus is the spectacular night sky unhindered by city lights.
Geysers are among the Earth’s most fascinating natural phenomena, but don’t assume they’re strictly earthly. NASA’s Voyager spacecraft captured an astonishing sight during their flyby of Triton, the planet Neptune’s largest moon, in 1989: towering geysers of Nitrogen gas tinted dark with dust, rising high into the moon’s threadbare atmosphere. Wondrous indeed and best of all, there’s no need to add soap!