Maintaining deformation stations in Yellowstone is a 4-season job!

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Readers of this column will recall that the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory (YVO) is actually a consortium of agencies that work together to monitor activity at Yellowstone. Today we will take a deeper look at the role that UNAVCO plays in that consortium, and some of the work that we do in the park.

Who is UNAVCO, you may ask? We are a federally funded non-profit charged by the National Science Foundation with operating the National Earth Science Geodetic Facility. We help study the Earth's shape, gravity field, and rotation, using high precision field measurements to quantify small changes in the Earth's surface. Among other things, we built and now operate the Plate Boundary Observatory (PBO), a network of high-precision, geodetic remote monitoring stations that spans the continental US and Alaska.

Digging a PBO site out from the snow....

A UNAVCO field engineer digs a buried PBO GPS station out from the snow to replace a failed cellular communication device in 2017. Accessing the site required 60 miles of snowmobiling and then a 20 minute hike through waste deep snow. Photo by Mike Gottlieb.

(Credit: Gottlieb, Mike. Public domain.)

Within Yellowstone National Park, UNAVCO operates 14 continuous Global Positioning System (GPS) stations, five borehole strainmeter, tiltmeter, and seismic stations, as well as a lake level monitoring system on Yellowstone Lake. These stations are collecting and transmitting data in near real-time, allowing scientists around the world to study small changes (deformation) in the volcano, hydrothermal system, and Lake Yellowstone.

Keeping all this remote equipment running in environments like Yellowstone can be challenging. Engineers from UNAVCO typically visit the park four or five times a year to maintain and upgrade the instruments and associated equipment. Field work ranges from repairing solar panels and enclosures damaged by snow, to upgrading GPS receivers and antennas allow them to track new satellite signals. Getting the data back can be difficult too, as many of these stations are very far from civilization! We employ a combination of cellular, satellite, and local radio networks to carry the information back for archival and analysis.

While most of the fieldwork is scheduled for the summer season, sometimes equipment fails in the winter too. And since Yellowstone is closed to cars from November through April, getting to the remote stations is not trivial. Some years it can involve snowmobiling 60 miles each way at temperatures as low as -20 degrees F, or cross-country skiing several miles from the road. Even finding the equipment can be a challenge as it is often buried under feet of snow.

This past February, a team from UNAVCO visited several sites in the park to repair an offline continuous GPS station and tiltmeter. The work required a 1950s-era Bombardier snow coach and some cross-country skiing to be able to replace the failed communications equipment.

Cross country skiing to repair a borehole site in Yellowstone Natio...

UNAVCO engineers enroute to repair a communication link at a PBO borehole station near Panther Creek, Yellowstone National Park, in February 2018. Photo by Mike Gottlieb.

(Credit: Gottlieb, Mike. Public domain.)

The net result of all this effort is a stream of high-precision and real-time data on how the surface of the Yellowstone region is deforming—critical monitoring data for the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory. The latest measurements indicate that, since 2015, the caldera is subsiding at a rate of a few centimeters (about an inch) per year. The Norris area, in contrast, is uplifting at about the same rate.

All of the data collected by UNAVCO are available to the public, so we encourage you to check out these resources:

As you explore these datasets, keep in mind the engineers at UNAVCO whose hard work regardless of seasons and conditions keeps the data flowing and ensures that scientists and the public have the information they need to understand surface deformation at Yellowstone.

  • GPS data from the 14 stations in Yellowstone National Park can be accessed from the UNAVCO map interface (just navigate to the Yellowstone region)
  • borehole strain data from stations B205, B206, B207, B208, B944, and B950 are available from the strainmeter data archive
  • borehole seismic data from stations B205, B206, B207, and B208 are available from the seismic data archive
  • borehole tilt data from stations B205, B206, B207, B208, B944, B945, and B950 are available from the tilt data archive