YVO welcomes Montana State University to the team!

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Since 2013, the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory has been a consortium of 8 institutions—a mix of state and federal agencies and academic institutions.  Today, we are pleased to announce the addition of a 9th member of the consortium: Montana State University!

Simplified Geologic Map of Yellowstone National Park

Simplified Geologic Map of Yellowstone, modified from USGS I-711 by Marli Miller, University of Oregon. All rock material resulting from the major caldera-forming eruptions are labelled at Qt, where the dashed caldera boundary highlights the scale of these events. Older volcanic, sedimentary and metamorphic rocks are found outside of this boundary. (Public domain.)

Yellowstone Caldera Chronicles is a weekly column written by scientists and collaborators of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory. This week's contribution is from Dr. Madison Myers, in the Department of Earth Sciences, and Dr. Luke McKay, in the Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences and the Center for Biofilm Engineering, both at Montana State University.

Unlike most volcano observatories, Yellowstone is monitored by a consortium of institutions. The Yellowstone Volcano Observatory (YVO) was founded in 2001 and at first only involved three organizations: Yellowstone National Park, the United States Geological Survey and the University of Utah. In 2013 it expanded to 8 institutions. Now, in 2020, Montana State University has joined the group. 

Sulfurihydrogenibium streamers at Mammoth Hot Springs are sustained by hydrogen sulfide as a source of chemical energy seeping up from below ground. (Public domain by Luke McKay)

Montana State University is located in beautiful Bozeman, Montana, only 1.5 hours from the entrance of Yellowstone National Park. For years, researchers at Montana State have used Yellowstone as a natural laboratory to test important scientific hypotheses and to teach classes, focusing on the rich biodiversity, hydrothermal centers and of course, geology. Two of the main ways that Montana State currently helps to monitor the volcano are through assessment of the state of the hydrothermal centers and volcanic mapping of the main eruptive units.

Just like you and me, the Yellowstone volcano expresses itself in diverse ways. The heat, water, and gases released by the deep magma chamber seep upwards through geologic structures, finding their way through diverse subsurface environments and up to the surface where they encounter dynamic hydrological and topographical settings. What results is over 10,000 surface expressions of the volcano, giving us hot springs, geysers, mud pots and fumaroles, all with unique thermal and geochemical characteristics. 

Consequently, the thermal areas in Yellowstone National Park yield an enormous variety of ecological niches that harbor extraordinarily diverse types of life. Microbiologists from Montana State University visit these diverse ecosystems all over the park to characterize and understand the many life forms that colonize them. These creatures represent all three domains of life (Archaea, Bacteria, and Eukarya, and their associated viruses) and they make a living using the specific volcano-derived chemistry of their local habitats. The microorganisms living in a particular hot spring are thus reflections of the hydrothermal state in that particular location.  So  a strong volcano-monitoring program must include a comprehensive understanding of the life that colonizes the different thermal features—one of Montana State’s areas of expertise!

Volcanologists from MSU are helping to monitor the volcano by mapping the primary eruptive units, allowing them to assess the volumes, frequency, and style in which magma has erupted in the past. For instance, during the summer of 2020 two groups of Montana State graduate and undergraduate students will take on field-intensive geologic mapping projects in Yellowstone National Park. One group is charged with updating the Geologic Map for the 150-year-Anniversary of the National Park in 2022. This project involves ‘stitching together’ individual geologic maps and highlighting areas where the boundaries disagree. Students will then visit these troublesome spots in person to clarify uncertainty on the current map.

The second group will be busily sorting out some mis-mapped outcrops associated with the oldest and youngest supereruptions of the Yellowstone volcanic system, including investigating the physical extent of two newly discovered units of the Lava Creek Tuff (from the youngest supereruption 631,000 years ago) in the Sour Creek Dome area (near Hayden Valley). Both of these projects will involve a lot of field mapping and back-country camping and will help with the training of the next generation of field geologists.

Combined, these methods of mapping and biological investigation, along with numerous other techniques (like ground deformation, gas monitoring, and seismology) can be applied to understand the hazards associated with any volcano, even ones as large as Yellowstone.  Montana State University has a vital role in better monitoring and understanding Yellowstone and is pleased to now be a formal member of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory team!