When Old Faithful Wasn’t

Old Faithful geyser, Yellowstone National Park. Colin.faulkingham, public domain, Wikimedia Commons

By Jim Brace-Thompson

Old Faithful Geyser delights visitors to Yellowstone National Park by living up to its name. Every 90 minutes or so, it provides a great show as it erupts a big white plume of boiling hot water and steam, right on schedule. But Old Faithful hasn’t always been so faithful. In fact, at one point it seems to have dried up completely!

Some 800 years ago, way back in the 13th Century, there was a megadrought. The Medieval Climate Anomaly may have made Greenland downright inviting to Vikings, but in general it brought famine and suffering to places all around the world. It is the prime suspect for having taken out the Native American cultures known as the Hohokam and the Anasazi peoples who abandoned Mesa Verde during that period. Now, it also appears to have shut down Old Faithful’s plumbing. And that plumbing remained on the “off switch” for nearly a century!

Hydrologists and geologists, including Shaul Hurwitz of the U.S. Geological Survey, have found tree remains embedded in the mineral-rich sediments surrounding the geyser. They have dated these remains at A.D. 1230-1360, or the time period of the Medieval Climate Anomaly. The tree remains are a clear sign that the geyser system went dormant long enough for vegetation to grow in what would normally be an inhospitable area so close to a hot geyser.

With drought conditions on the increase in today’s American West, these same scientists are saying Old Faithful could very well dry up again.

Author: Jim Brace-Thompson

JimBraceThompson Jim began and oversees the AFMS Badge Program for kids, has been inducted into the National Rockhound & Lapidary Hall of Fame within their Education Category, and is the president-elect for the American Federation of Mineralogical Societies, www.amfed.org.
Contact him at jbraceth@roadrunner.com.


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