Yellowstone: Norris Geyser Basin

Vital Stats
Name: Yellowstone
Type: Supervolcano
Eruption Status: Active
Last Eruption: Approximately 640,000 years ago
Location: Black Sand Basin, Biscuit Basin, Midway Geyser Basin, and Lower Geyser Basin
44.7262° N, 110.7043° W
Northwestern Wyoming/Southeastern Idaho

Norris Geyser Basin Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

 Having a blast with Yellowstone’s geyser eruptions and thermal features? So am I!  But we’re just getting started. Now we’re off to the oldest, hottest, and most active geyser basin in the park: Norris Geyser Basin.

Norris is unlike the other geyser basins in a few aspects:

1) It’s freaking hot. How hot? Scientists drilled a hole 265 feet into the rock a few years back and measured a temperature of 401 degrees Fahrenheit. That’ll toast your marshmallows!

2) Norris sits at the junction of 2 major fault lines and a slew of fractures and fissures. All these cracks in the ground cause earthquakes, which shake up the plumbing systems that cause geyser eruptions. The cracks also allow more heat from the volcanic hot spot to rise to the surface, fueling the geyser basin’s thermal features.

3) Generally, we think of most places on Earth as having characteristics that are friendly to supporting human life. Not here. Dig around a little and you’ll find that arsenic, mercury, and other toxic metals are prevalent in the soil and water. Echinus Geyser (which we will visit in a few minutes) has the pH of a can of Coke. Remember that Coca Cola will dissolve a penny if it’s left in the liquid for long enough.

Yet, despite these toxic metals, life thrives here. One organism in particular thrives on arsenic! Organisms like this, who thrive in extreme conditions and on compounds that would knock you and I over, are called “extremophiles.” Since their discovery, these organisms have been attracting a lot of study from the scientific community.

4) Disturbances! Norris Geyser Basin is the only place in the park where normal thermal features will undergo dramatic changes overnight. Clear blue pools will turn a mucky brown and boil vigorously while others explode as geysers. These wild parties that the basin throws last from days to a week and then everything reverts to normal behavior. Why? Scientists don’t really know. If I had to make a logical guess, I’d suspect it has something to do with item #2 above. With all the extra heat that is allowed up from the magma chamber and the frequent earthquakes that make things shake, rattle, and roll, I could see how dramatic changes might occur here.

But enough chatter. Let’s go exploring!

Porcelain Basin:

Porcelain Basin looks like a moonscape with splotches of bright color. Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

Once we’ve parked the car and explored the museum (which is a great place to learn more about Norris), we headed north along the trail. Coming out from the thick pine trees, we emerged into the Porcelain Basin. It felt akin to stepping out onto the Moon. Everything in the basin below us is an ashy gray, made so by the layers of geyserite and acid-bleached rhylolite lava. Amid the shimmery gray landscape are vibrant pops of color: bright blue pools of boiling water and rainbows of color where algae and bacteria have set up shop. Reds, oranges, yellows, greens… they’re all here. The drastic changes in color show the diversity of temperatures and pH levels in the water here.

Since this place is so stinkin’ hot, make sure you keep your boots on the boardwalk! Geyserite is fragile and if you step in the wrong spot and break through, you are toast. Stay safe.

Black Growler is a noisy little steam vent – you can hear it halfway across the Porcelain Basin! Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

Black Growler: This little guy is one of my favorite, and perhaps one of the most memorable, features of Porcelain Basin. It is one of the hottest thermal features in Yellowstone at a whopping 284 degrees Fahrenheit. This steam vent vaporizes water and jets the steam out of its opening. It sounds like a jet engine or a howling dragon. And it just won’t quit. Imagine having him for a next door neighbor. Goodbye, sleep!

Whirligig Geyser: This geyser is a spectacular rainbow of colors where extremophiles have set up their homes. “Rivers” of reds and orange pours from the center of the geyser while emerald green algae has made thick mats a little further away. This geyser is a great addition to the party – it has rhythm! When it erupts, the water pulsates like a drumbeat.

Back Basin:

Once we’ve done the loop through Porcelain Basin, we head South past the musuem into Back Basin where the thermal features don’t get any less tame.

Minute Geyser: Our first stop is Minute Geyser. It’s sort of a sad sight, really. This geyser used to frequently shoot water 60 feet into the air. People tossed so much junk into it (coins, trash, etc.) that it has clogged the vent. Now when it erupts, it’s only 1-2 feet in the air. A perfect example of what NOT to do to a geyser. Don’t vandalize them and if you see it happening, report it.

Porkchop Geyser exploded in 1989. You can still see the wreckage around the geyser’s vent. Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

Porkchop Geyser: This geyer packs more of a punch than you’d think. It was a glittering hot spring until 1985 when it suddenly turned into a geyser. Silica deposits started to congeal in the vent, which constricted the passage and made the water fountains triple in height. Finally, the silica clogged the vent completely. In 1989, Porkchop exploded, launching rocks and water 200 feet into the air. Yes, there were tourists nearby (yikes!). Thankfully, it was a near miss and nobody was injured. You can still see the blast zone today.

Emerald Spring: Many of the hot springs you’ll find at Yellowstone have a crystal clear blue color to them. What makes Emerald Spring gleam like a green gem? You’ll smell your first clue when you walk up to it: sulphur. It stinks like rotten eggs and, ironically, is the color of egg yolk. When this yellow sulphur at the spring’s edge mixes with the blue water, it creates the gorgeous green tint that you see.

Volcano Hopper enjoying the warm steam and being in the heart of a super volcano!

Green Dragon Spring and Puff N’ Stuff Geyser: Green Dragon Spring is a great place to cool your heels for a few minutes as you gaze over the greenish pool. I love the name of Puff N’ Stuff – a geyser right next door that huffs and puffs like an old school locomotive. In the freezing fall weather, it was nice to be enveloped by the warm clouds of steam for a few minutes.

Steamboat Geyser is the world’s tallest geyser. Photo Credit: Volcano Hopper

Steamboat Geyser: As you climb the hill, you’ll notice to your right a massive red and white mound of a geyser base. This is Steamboat Geyser – the tallest active geyser on the planet! It shoots water up to 380 feet in the air when it erupts. This is three times bigger than Old Faithful’s eruptions! And the steam phase afterward is equally as impressive, lasting up to 12 hours. But if you get to see one of these eruptions, consider yourself lucky. Times between eruptions can range from a week up to 50 years. The last eruption was on March 15, 2018 and before that it erupted on September 3, 2014. Steamboat will regularly do mini-performances with eruptions from 10-40 feet in the air. We were lucky to see a 60 footer as we explored the area.

Cistern Spring: Near Steamboat Geyser is a beautiful blue spring named Cistern Spring. And it’s aptly named: when Steamboat erupts, this spring completely drains. Think of what happens when you flush your toilet. The water tank at the back of the toilet completely empties at the same time the bowl does. This phenomenon means that Steamboat and Cistern are sharing the same plumbing system. A few days after a Steamboat eruption, the spring refills and regularly overflows onto the surrounding landscape.

Echinus Geyser: Echinus Geyser (pronounced e-KI-nus) was named because it once resembled the spiny spikes of sea urchins known as echinoderms. Echinus formerly erupted every 30-70 minutes, but has slowed to a few times a day. That doesn’t mean that it’s eruptions are puny. In fact, Echinus will shoot water up to 125 feet in the air. It also has a pH of 3.3, which is as acidic as vinegar or as a bottle of Coca Cola. The acidity and height of the eruptions make Echinus Geyser the largest acid-water geyser in the world. In fact, most of the world’s acid-water geysers can be found right here at Norris Geyser Basin.

Up Next: A little less explosive, but no less impressive! Mammoth Hot Springs.

And don’t forget to hop over to my Facebook page for more pictures!

Copyright © 2018 Volcano Hopper. All rights reserved.

1 comment

I just couldn’t depart your website before suggesting that I extremely enjoyed the standard information a person provide for your visitors? Is going to be back often to check up on new posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *