Geysers of Iceland

by Solveig Gardner Servian


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People may be forgiven for associating geysers with the famous Old Faithful of Yellowstone National Park in the US, for actually the name originated in Iceland. Years ago I had to travel there myself to learn this fact despite having had a good education!

It is from The Great Geysir of Iceland, which first erupted in the 14th century, that the world's geysers take their name. It used to erupt every 60 minutes until the early 1900s when it became dormant. Earthquakes in June 2000 subsequently reawakened the giant and it now erupts approximately every 8 to 10 hours.

The second most famous geyser in Iceland is Strokkur, which erupts every 8 minutes throwing a column of water and steam to a height of 20 metres or so. There are also several other smaller ones.

Geysers are found in active volcanic areas or land that is prone to earthquakes. Thermal or hot springs are also a feature, as are boiling mud pools, often appreciated for their medicinal qualities.

The powerhouse of a geyser lies deep underground, where surface water seeps through fissures and collects in caverns. The temperature of the surrounding volcanic rock, at around 200 °C, heats the trapped water, causing it to expand into steam and force its way up and out.

In the case of the Great Geysir, the depth of the column through which the steam rises is approximately 23 metres. The erupting water once reached a height of 60 metres, but today its maximum is only 10 metres.

On the surface, the mouth of the geyser is circular with what looks like a little pile of stones around its edge. The area is coated with a pale mineral crust and the water in the surrounding basin is crystal clear and near boiling point.

Watching a geyser erupt, even a small one, is a fascinating sight. First the water starts to boil, then very quickly a bubble forms and bursts as the steam, hotter and lighter than the boiling water, forces its way skywards. I made my visit in October one year, and to see steam evaporate in the air and turn to into ice as touched the ground was quite schizophrenic!

When eruptions are particularly fierce one can sometimes feel the earth underfoot shaking slightly and hear distant rumbles. With the eruption comes a smell of sulphur, fortunately carried away on the wind!

The regularity of eruption can generally be timed to the minute. This is probably due to the time it takes for the expelled water to sink back down into the cavern and reheat to the necessary temperature. As it is the same amount of water that goes through the cycle, it takes the same amount of time for each cycle.

To encourage a geyser to erupt earlier than its natural cycle, stones or even washing-up liquid can be thrown in to break the surface tension of the water. This can be dangerous, though, as the stones will be thrown back up at tremendous velocity.


© S.G. Servian 2003


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