[Geysers] Why study geysers? Park Historian's thoughts.

Lee_Whittlesey at nps.gov Lee_Whittlesey at nps.gov
Thu Dec 22 08:12:42 PST 2011

Why study geysers in general and Fan/Mortar in particular?

To Carlton’s, Paul Strasser’s, and Jeff Cross’s well thought out responses
about prediction of the next eruption, I want to put in my two cents.

Since I completed WONDERLAND NOMENCLATURE in 1988 with its long geyser
history, I’ve been amazed at how much more I’ve found. I’ve added hundreds
of long, flowery, and often poetic descriptions of geyser activity, many
from newspapers, and some day, if I live long enough, I’ll publish them
all, because they are all part of that data that Carlton Cross mentions. To
me those accounts point to the fact that there is no place on earth that is
like Yellowstone and so in my estimation every scrap of its history should
be preserved, especially where that history is, as here, very unusual and
often unique.

To Carlton’s response about “no predictive value for ten or twenty years
from now,” I would add that a few geysers have shown remarkable stability
over time and the historic patterns that earlier observers recorded are
still usable by us today, so it is valuable to know that. And even where
thermal features have changed a great deal through time, our recording of
their activity and evaluating that history may yet give us a clue toward
predicting the next eruption, a result that Strasser reminds us is a
“bottom line” and a result that Carlton reminds us is only possible if we
HAVE the data because otherwise we won’t notice the correlations.

These points are all relevant but I think there is an overarching point
here, and it is that geyser study is a fascinating adjunct to the larger
history of TOURISM…in the West, in America as a whole, and in the world. In
that important realm (which is now becoming greatly studied by historians),
Yellowstone is a central part, because it was the first incentive for
tourism in the interior of the American West following the Civil War.
Geysers were and are a big part of that. Geysers are extremely unusual
natural features that attract discussion and ultimately tourism, and
visitors have been fascinated by them since earliest days. And, too, they
were the original reason for the establishment of Yellowstone National Park
(not the animals or canyons or lakes or waterfalls, as many people wrongly

Those early visitors did not care about volcanism-over-millennia; they
cared about the immediate geyser-show and the stories that got created
because of it. As Jeff Cross reminded us, because the eruptions of the
larger geysers are spectacular, they are worth the wait. This fascination
for geysers by tourists is evidenced by the hundreds of accounts we have of
their activity. And as many have mentioned, no other place else on earth
has that (at least in this magnitude), and so that fact alone makes the
geyser history worth recording.

Finally, Tara Cross has put the frosting on the cake by reminding us about
what makes tour guides tick, and we should remember that tour guides are an
essential part of that tourism now being so studied by historians. I love
her comment: “[Geysers] give me great joy. I would like others to
experience that too.” That is the essence of a tour guide—someone who loves
showing things to people.

And I would argue that it is the essence of tourism itself.

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