Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Geysers

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EB9 Geysers - Mackensie theory.jpg

Fig. 1.

EB9 Geysers - J. H. J. Müller apparatus.jpg

Fig. 2.





186° 225°
230° 241°
C    249°
251° 255°
255° 266°
259°   278°
GEYSERS, Geisers, or Geisirs, are fountains of a peculiar construction, in virtue of which they shoot up into the air, at more or less regular intervals of time, a column of heated water and steam or of mud. Those of Iceland have been known at least from the time of Saxo Grammaticus, who briefly mentions them in his Danorum regum historiæ; but no satisfactory explanation of the phenomena was advanced till near the middle of the present century, when Bunsen brought his scientific knowledge and power of investigation to bear on the subject. Sir George Mackenzie, in his Travels in Iceland, 1811, had written as follows:—“Let us suppose a cavity C (fig. 1), communicating with the pipe PQ, filled with boiling water to the height AB, and that the steam above this line is confined so that it sustains the water to the height P. If we suppose a sudden addition of heat to be applied under the cavity C, a quantity of steam will be produced which, owing to the great pressure, will be evolved in starts causing the noises like discharges of artillery, and the shaking of the ground.” He admitted that even to his own mind this could be only a partial explanation of the facts of the case, and that he was unable to account for the frequent and periodical production of the necessary heat; but he has the credit of hitting on what is certainly the proximate cause—the sudden evolution of steam. By Bunsen’s theory the whole difficulty is solved, as is beautifully demonstrated by the artificial geyser designed by Professor J. H. J. Müller of Freiburg (fig. 2). If the tube ab be filled with water and heated at two points, first at a and then at b, the following succession of changes is produced. The water at a beginning to boil, the superincumbent column is consequently raised, and the stratum of water which was on the point of boiling at b being raised to d is there subjected to a diminished pressure; a sudden evolution of steam accordingly takes place at d, and the superincumbent water is violently ejected. Received in the basin c, the air-cooled water sinks back into the tube, and the temperature of the whole column is consequently lowered; but the under strata of water are naturally those which are least affected by the cooling process; the boiling begins again at A, and the same succession of events is the result (see R. Bunsen, “Physikalische Beobachtungen über die hauptsächlichsten Gisire Islands,” in Poggendorff’s Annalen der Physik and Chemie, vol. lxxii., 1847; and J. Müller, “Ueber Bunsen’s Geysertheorie,” ibid., vol. lxxix., 1850). The principal difference between the artificial and the natural geyser-tube is that in the latter the effect is not necessarily produced by two distinct sources of heat like the two fires of the experimental apparatus, but by the continual influx of heat from the bottom of the shaft and the differences between the boiling points of the different parts of the column owing to the different pressures of the superincumbent mass. This may be thus illustrated:—AB is the column of water; on the right side the figures represent approximately the boiling points (Fahr.) calculated according to the ordinary laws, and the figures on the left the actual temperature of the same places. Both gradually increase as we descend, but the relation between the two is very different at different heights. At the top the water is still 39° from its boiling point, and even at the bottom it is 19°; but at D the deficiency is only 4°. If, then, the stratum at D be suddenly lifted as high as C, it will be 2° above the boiling point there, and will consequently expend those 2° in the formation of steam.

Any hot spring capable of depositing siliceous material by the evaporation of its water may in course of time transform itself into a geyser, a tube being gradually built up as the level of the basin is raised. And every geyser continuing to deposit siliceous material is preparing its own destruction; for as soon as the tube becomes deep enough to contain a column of water sufficiently heavy to prevent the lower strata attaining their boiling points, the whole mechanism is deranged. In geyser districts it is easy to find thermal springs busy with the construction of the tube; warm pools, or laugs, as the Icelanders call them, on the top of siliceous mounds, with the mouth of the shaft still open in the middle; and dry basins from which the water has receded with their shafts now choked with rubbish.

Geysers exist at the present time in many volcanic regions, as in the Eastern Archipelago, Japan, and South America; but the three localities where they attain their highest development are Iceland, New Zealand, and Wyoming in the United States. The very name by which we call them indicates the historical priority of the Iceland group. It is an old Icelandic word—geysir, equivalent to gusher or rager—from the verb geysa, itself a derivative of gjosa, to gush. In native usage it is the proper name of the Great Geyser, and not an appellative—the general term hver, a hot spring, making the nearest approach to the European sense of the word (see Cleasby and Vigfusson, Icelandic English Dictionary, s.v.).

The Iceland geysers are situated about 50 miles N.W. of Hecla, in a broad valley of alluvial formation, at the foot of a range of hills from 300 to 400 feet in height. Within a circuit of about two miles, upwards of one hundred hot springs may be counted, varying greatly both in character and dimensions. The Great Geyser in its calm periods appears as a circular pool 72 feet in diameter and 4 feet in depth, occupying a basin on the summit of a mound of siliceous concretion; and in the centre of the basin is a shaft, about 9 feet in diameter and 70 feet in depth, lined with the same siliceous material. The clear sea-green water flows over the eastern rim of the basin in little runnels. On the surface it has a temperature of from 76° to 89° Cent., or from 168° to 188° Fahr. Within the shaft there is of course a continual shifting both of the average temperature of the column and of the relative temperatures of the several strata. The results of the observations of Bunsen and Descloizeaux in 1874 were as follows (cf. Poggendorff’s Annalen, loc. cit., and Comptes Rendus, vol. xxiii.):—About three hours after a great eruption on July 6th, the temperature 6 metres from the bottom of the shaft was 121·6° C.; at 9·50 metres, 121·1°; at 16·30 metres, 109° (?); and at 19·70 metres, 95° (?). About nine hours after a great eruption on July 6th, at about 0·3 metres from the bottom, it was 123°; at 4·8 metres it was 122·7°; at 9·6 metres, 113°; at 14·4 metres, 85·8°; at 19·2 metres, 82·6°. On the 7th, there having been no eruption since the previous forenoon, the temperature at the bottom was 127·5°; at 5 metres from the bottom, 123°; at 9 metres, 120.4°; at 14·75 metres, 106·4°; and at 19 metres, 55°. About three hours after a small eruption, which took place at forty minutes past three o’clock in the afternoon of the 7th, the temperature at the bottom was 126·5°; at 6·85 metres up it was 121·8°; at 14·75 metres, 110°; and at 19 metres, 55°. Thus, continues Bunsen, it is evident that the temperature of the column diminishes from the bottom upwards; that, leaving out of view small irregularities, the temperature in all parts of the column is found to be steadily on the increase in proportion to the time that has elapsed since the previous eruption; that even a few minutes before the great eruption the temperature at no point of the water column reached the boiling point corresponding to the atmospheric pressure at that part; and finally, that the temperature about half-way up the shaft made the nearest approach to the appropriate boiling point, and that this approach was closer in proportion as an eruption was at hand. Observations made by Mr Robert Walker in August 1874 remarkably confirm those of Professor Bunsen (see Proceedings of Roy. Soc. of Edinburgh, vol. viii. p. 514). The Great Geyser has varied very much in the nature and frequency of its eruptions since it began to be observed. In 1809 and 1810, e.g., according to Hooker and Mackenzie, its columns were 100 or 90 feet high, and rose at intervals of 30 hours, while, according to Henderson, in 1815 the intervals were of 6 hours, and the altitude from 80 to 150 feet.

About 100 paces from the Great Geyser is the Strokkr or churn, which was first described by Stanlay in 1789. The shaft in this case is about 44 feet deep, and, instead of being cylindrical, is funnel-shaped, having a width of about 8 feet at the mouth, but contracting to about 10 inches near the centre. By casting stones or turf into the shaft so as to stopper the narrow neck, eruptions can be accelerated, and they often exceed in magnitude those of the Great Geyser itself.[1] During quiescence the column of water fills only the lower part of the shaft, its surface usually lying from 9 to 12 feet below the level of the soil. Unlike that of the Great Geyser, it is always in ebullition, and its temperature is subject to comparatively slight differences. On the 8th of July 1847 Bunsen found the temperature at the bottom 112·9° C.; at 3 metres from the bottom, 111·4°; and at 6 metres, 108°; the whole depth of water was on that occasion 10·15 metres. On the 6th, at 2·90 metres from the bottom, it was 114·2°; and at 6·20 metres, 109·3°. On the 10th, at 0·35 metres from the bottom, the reading gave 113·9°; at 4·65 metres, 113·7°; and at 8·85 metres, 99·9°.

The great geyser-district of New Zealand is situated in the south of the province of Auckland in or near the upper basin of the Waikato river to the N.E. of Lake Taupo. In many respects the scene presented in various parts of the districts is far more striking and beautiful than anything of the same kind to be found in Iceland, but this is due not so much to the grandeur of the geysers proper as to the bewildering profusion of boiling springs, steam-jets, and mud-volcanoes, and to the fantastic effects produced on the rocks by the siliceous deposits and by the action of the boiling water. At Whakarewarewa, near Lake Loto Rua, there is a group of eight geysers, one of which, the Waikate, throws the column to a height of 30 or 35 feet (see Hochstetter, New Zealand, 1867). But it is in the Yellowstone Park, in the north-west corner of Wyoming, that the various phenomena of the geysers can be observed on the most portentous scale. The geysers themselves are to be counted by hundreds, and the dimensions and activity of several of them render those of Iceland and New Zealand almost insignificant in comparison. The principal groups are situated along the course of that tributary of the Upper Madison which bears the name of Fire Hole River. Many of the individual geysers have very distinctive characteristics in the form and colour of the mound, in the style of the eruption, and in the shape of the column. The “Giantess,” as observed by Langford (1870) and Dunraven (1874), lifts the main column to a height of only 50 or 60 feet, but shoots a thin spire to no less than 250 feet. The “Castle” varies in height from 10 or 15 to 250 feet; and on the occasions of greatest effort the noise is appalling, and shakes the ground like an earthquake. Strong distinct pulsations, says Lord Dunraven, occurred at a maximum rate of seventy per minute, having a general tendency to increase gradually in vigour and rapidity until the greatest development of strength was attained, and then sinking again by degrees. The jets grew stronger and stronger at every pulsation for ten or twelve strokes, until the effort would culminate in three impulses of unusual power. The total display lasted about an hour. “Old Faithful” owes its name to the regularity of its action. Its eruptions, which raise the water to a height of 100 or 150 feet, last for about five minutes, and recur every three-quarters of an hour. The “Beehive” sometimes attains a height of 219 feet; and the water, instead of falling back into the basin, is dissipated in spray and vapour. Very various accounts are given of the “Giant.” Hayden saw it playing for an hour and twenty minutes, and reaching a height of 140 feet, and Lieutenant Doane says it continued in action for three hours and a half, and had a maximum of 200 feet; but at the earl of Dunraven’s visit the eruption lasted only a few minutes. For further details see Dunraven’s Great Divide (1874), and the Reports of Professor Hayden.


  1. According to Professor Tyndall (see Royal Institution Notices, 1853, and Heat as a Mode of Motion, 1863), this effect of the stopper is simply due to the fact that it is an impediment to the normally gradual ascent of the heated aqueous strata, and that it is an impediment which at last is suddenly removed.