Modernizing geodetic infrastructure at YNP: The best data for the best science

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Fall is a time for maintaining monitoring sites in Yellowstone, since they will not be accessible during the winter months.  That includes the continuous GPS stations that track deformation across Yellowstone National Park!

Yellowstone Caldera Chronicles is a weekly column written by scientists and collaborators of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory. This week's contribution is from Brendan Hodge and Tim Dittmann, from the Eastern Region Network of the Americas Operations group at UNAVCO.

The inside of a borehole seismometer equipment enclosure is full of batteries, cables, and other equipment.

The inside of a borehole seismometer equipment enclosure is full of batteries, cables, data communications equipment and data recording instruments.  Some of the geodetic infrastructure in Yellowstone National Park is colocated with seismic equipment.  In this case, the communications downlink radio for the GNSS station is housed with the borehole enclosure.  This site was visited in September 2020 in order to repair a power system failure.

(Credit: Brendan Hodge, UNAVCO Inc. . Public domain.)

As has been discussed in previous Caldera Chronicles, UNAVCO, Inc. operates borehole strain, borehole seismic, and GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite Systems, like GPS) networks within and around the Yellowstone National Park as a subset of the hemispherical-scale Network of the Americas (NOTA), a part of the National Science Foundation’s Geodetic Facility for the Advancement of Geoscience (NSF-GAGE).  Collectively, we refer to these instrument types as the geodetic network, since geodesy is the study of the shape and gravity field of the Earth.  Today we will highlight GNSS infrastructure and data from the Yellowstone region—data that are used by geophysical researchers worldwide as well as for monitoring by YVO. 

UNAVCO has been maintaining geodetic stations in Yellowstone for over two decades.  Much of the existing geodetic infrastructure in Yellowstone was installed nearly 20 years ago as part of the NSF Plate Boundary Observatory (PBO).  Since that time, technological advances and the advent of new GNSS satellite systems, which complement the GPS system, have provided the opportunity to collect several times more data for use by geophysical researchers and volcanologists. In order to collect the abundance of new observations from GNSS, however, modern equipment must be installed to replace older technology.  Currently, UNAVCO is completing equipment upgrades throughout NOTA, with a focus on key locations of important scientific interest, such as Yellowstone National Park.  

Upgrading the geodetic network within Yellowstone is an ongoing effort.  Engineers can travel to the park during every season, if needed, but typically schedule most maintenance work during the summer months.  A recent maintenance trip to YNP was completed by UNAVCO Engineer Brendan Hodge.  His work included GNSS equipment upgrades and communications improvements, as well as repairs to power systems.  GNSS equipment upgrades were completed at sites LKWY, OFW2, and P716 (data are accessible via the YVO monitoring page). In addition, the power system at the borehole site near Canyon Village was also repaired.

GNSS site LKWY, on the north side of Yellowstone Lake

GNSS site LKWY, which was visited in September 2020 to install new GNSS equipment and upgrade the communications for improved data quality.  The site is now capable of collecting several times more observation data then was possible with the original older equipment.

(Credit: Brendan Hodge, UNAVCO Inc. . Public domain.)

COVID-19 has impacted field operations across the NOTA, as UNAVCO staff navigate how to safely operate within state and local regulations, internal policies, and CDC guidance implemented to protect staff and the public.  UNAVCO engineers follow state and local travel restrictions and camp in dispersed public lands or stay in private residences for the duration of any field-support trip.  Precautions are taken to limit interaction with the public and masking guidelines are followed diligently. The UNAVCO headquarters in Boulder, Colorado, is largely shut down, with the majority of staff working from home.  Of course, an active volcano is not concerned with travel limitations, and so Brendan was able to visit Yellowstone and the surrounding region working within COVID protocols.  This work resulted in necessary communications and equipment upgrades that improved data quality at a number of the stations and readied them for the upcoming winter.

High-quality GNSS data are useful for determining subtle changes in the magmatic system beneath the Yellowstone Caldera.  Since these GNSS equipment upgrades have been completed, data from even more satellites are being recorded.  For example, at site LKWY the additional GNSS signals collected by the upgraded receiver resulted in up to 290% more data recorded at the site.  The result of the increased quantity of signals received by the GNSS antenna is a decrease in the noise of the position estimate.  This enables scientists to identify smaller-magnitude deformation signals at this location, which could prove extremely valuable when looking for the subtle ground motion that can be associated with a volcanic region. 

The maintenance work and upgrades combine to produce a better data product for scientists that monitor as well as research the Yellowstone Caldera magmatic system. 

Maintenance and upgrade work is never done, given the constant improvements to technology that become available and the challenges in operating remote stations in an extreme environment like Yellowstone.  In the years to come, UNAVCO will continue to upgrade GNSS sites in Yellowstone and around the country to keep pace with technological advances and maintenance needs, and to ensure the best possible data for tracking ground deformation in the Yellowstone region.

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