Seismicity at Old Faithful Geyser: an isolated source of geothermal noise and possible analogue of volcanic seismicity

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Old Faithful Geyser in Yellowstone National Park, U.S.A., is a relatively isolated source of seismic noise and exhibits seismic behavior similar to that observed at many volcanoes, including "bubblequakes" that resemble B-type "earthquakes", harmonic tremor before and during eruptions, and periods of seismic quiet prior to eruptions. Although Old Faithful differs from volcanoes in that the conduit is continuously open, that rock-fracturing is not a process responsible for seismicity, and that the erupting fluid is inviscid H2O rather than viscous magma, there are also remarkable similarities in the problems of heat and mass recharge to the system, in the eruption dynamics, and in the seismicity. Water rises irregularly into the immediate reservoir of Old Faithful as recharge occurs, a fact that suggests that there are two enlarged storage regions: one between 18 and 22 m (the base of the immediate reservoir) and one between about 10 and 12 m depth. Transport of heat from hot water or steam entering at the base of the recharging water column into cooler overlying water occurs by migration of steam bubbles upward and their collapse in the cooler water, and by episodes of convective overturn. An eruption occurs when the temperature of the near-surface water exceeds the boiling point if the entire water column is sufficiently close to the boiling curve that the propagation of pressure-release waves (rarefactions) down the column can bring the liquid water onto the boiling curve. The process of conversion of the liquid water in the conduit at the onset of an eruption into a two-phase liquid-vapor mixture takes on the order of 30 s. The seismicity is directly related to the sequence of filling and heating during the recharge cycle, and to the fluid mechanics of the eruption. Short (0.2-0.3 s), monochromatic, high-frequency events (20-60 Hz) resembling unsustained harmonic tremor and, in some instances, B-type volcanic earthquakes, occur when exploding or imploding bubbles of steam cause transient vibrations of the fluid column. The frequency of the events is determined by the length of the water column and the speed of sound of the fluid in the conduit when these events occur; damping is controlled by the characteristic and hydraulic impedances, which depend on the above parameters, as well as on the recharge rate of the fluid. Two periods of reduced seismicity (of a few tens of seconds to nearly a minute in duration) occur during the recharge cycle, apparently when the water rises rapidly through the narrow regions of the conduit, causing a sudden pressure increase that temporarily suppresses steam bubble formation. A period of decreased seismicity also precedes preplay or an eruption; this appears to be the time when rising steam bubbles move into a zone of boiling that is acoustically decoupled from the wall of the conduit because of the acoustic impedance mismatch between boiling water (ρc ∼ 103 g cm-2 s-1) and rock (ρc ∼ 3 × 105 g cm2 s-1). Sustained harmonic tremor occurs during the first one to one-and-a-half minutes of an eruption of Old Faithful, but is not detectable in the succeeding minutes of the eruption. The eruption tremor is caused by hydraulic transients propagating within a sublayer of unvesiculated water that underlies the erupting two-phase liquid-vapor mixture. The resonant frequencies of the fluid column decrease to about 1 Hz when all of the water in the conduit has been converted to a water-steam mixture. Surges are observed in the flow at this frequency, but the resonance has not been detected seismically, possibly because the two-phase erupting fluid is seismically decoupled from the rock on which seismometers are placed. If Old Faithful is an analogue for volcanic seismicity, this study shows that because the frequency of tremor depends on the acoustic properties of the fluid and on conduit dimensions, both properties must be considered in analysis of tremor in volcanic regions. Because magma sound speed can vary over nearly two orders of magnitude as it changes from an undersaturated liquid into a saturated two-phase mixture, tremor frequency might vary by this magnitude and very broad-band seismographs may be required if tremor is to be monitored as magma goes from an undersaturated liquid to a vesiculated froth. Cessation of fluid-induced seismicity may indicate that the processes that drive the transients cease, but it is also possible that the processes that drive the transients continue but the fluid properties change so that the fluid becomes acoustically decoupled from the rock on which seismometers are placed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)59-95
Number of pages37
JournalJournal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research
Issue number1-2
StatePublished - Sep 1984
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geophysics
  • Geochemistry and Petrology


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