Geyser Physics

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Three basic components are necessary for a geyser: water, an intense geothermal heat source, and an appropriate plumbing system. In order to achieve an explosive eruption, the plumbing of a geyser includes both a reservoir in which water can gather as well as some constrictions that encourage the build-up of pressure. A cycle begins with geothermally heated water and groundwater filling the reservoir. As the water level increases, the pressure at the bottom of the reservoir increases. This allows the water to become superheated–hotter than its boiling point at standard pressure. Eventually, the water will boil even at high pressure. When this happens, steam bubbles rise to the surface and burst through the vent, spilling some of the water and thereby reducing the pressure on the water underneath. With the sudden drop in pressure, the superheated water will flash into steam, erupting into a violent boil and ejecting a huge jet of steam and water. For more on the process, check out this animation by Brian Davis, or to see what a geyser looks like on the inside, check out Eric King’s video. (Video credit: Valmurec; idea via Eric K.)

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