A tribute to an unsung hero of Yellowstone—Dave Drobeck (1960–2018)

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This week, Yellowstone Caldera Chronicles would like to acknowledge one of the unsung heroes of the long-term effort to monitor activity in the Yellowstone region.

Dave Drobeck spent nearly three decades building and maintaining the Yellowstone seismic network with the University of Utah Seismograph Stations (UUSS). We are saddened to report Dave's unexpected and untimely passing on February 11, just 8 days shy of his 58th birthday, and we would like to take this opportunity to celebrate his life and accomplishments.

David Drobeck, University of Utah...

Dave Drobeck, saddling his mount for his first-even horse ride to the remote Thorofare area of Yellowstone National Park in August 2009, with the goal of establishing a seismic station in the area. Photograph by Robert Smith (University of Utah).

(Credit: Smith, Robert. Public domain.)

Dave was born in Albany, New York, in 1960 and grew up just east of the Hudson River Valley. After receiving a BS degree in engineering from Duke University in 1985, he moved west to the University of Utah for a PhD in materials science engineering. Upon completion of his doctorate, Dave recognized that living in the Intermountain West offered him something new—namely to explore this new wilderness and mountain landscape and, most of all, to be his own boss.

The latter skill and his independent nature carried him throughout his career by simply asking, "what do you want to get done," and then saying "let me do it and do not bother me." Whatever was needed, it always got done. His first Utah job was shoveling snow off the roofs of lodges at Alta, Utah, and in the summers Dave explored the Colorado Plateau, the Green River, the Colorado River, the San Juan River, the Wind River Range, and the Tetons.

In the 1990s, Dave was hired at UUSS after demonstrating his commitment by volunteering to haul huge air-cell batteries (70 pounds each!) up steep hills to new seismic stations throughout Utah and Yellowstone. Dave had not taken any courses in electronics but was a very fast learner. As digital electronics began replacing analog systems, Dave quickly acquired the knowledge to install, repair and maintain the digital parts of the UUSS seismic network, keeping seismic monitoring in Utah and Yellowstone running smoothly for decades. Thanks in large part to Dave's hard work, the Yellowstone seismic network has evolved from its skeletal beginnings of a dozen old stations inherited from the U.S. Geological Survey to 35 modern digital seismic stations with 165 recorded channels and a high-reliability telemetry network.

Dave's contributions were not restricted to seismic monitoring. He also led the field construction of a network of permanent Global Positioning System (GPS) stations, and there are now about 25 sites in the region that are continuously measuring surface deformation. Both the GPS and seismic networks were located in the highest area of the Rocky Mountains, where winters can last 9 months, snow can be 10 feet deep, and temperatures have been known to drop to -50 Fahrenheit. Despite these challenges, most stations operate reliably year round.

These skills and experiences prompted many organizations to lean on Dave for assistance and advice. He was often called to help design new systems by the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology, University NAVSAR Consortium, the National Park Service, and the U.S. Geological Survey.

In addition to his tremendous skills, Dave also made friends with everyone he met. In Yellowstone, he knew all of the National Park Service personnel, interpreters, rangers, horse packers, and helicopter pilots. When staying in Park housing while doing field work, Dave would routinely cook up huge breakfast platters including eggs, tomatoes, garlic, potatoes, and onions (many of the ingredients for which were gathered from his own garden!) for not only his colleagues, but also nearby Park employees. The enticing smell wafted across the compound and brought neighbors by the dozen. He would also play his guitar on the porch and even in the field, serenading friends new and old.

Dave Drobeck will be sorely missed. His technical skills were beyond reproach, and his friendship is irreplaceable. We know more about Yellowstone because of Dave, and we are all better people for having known him.