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Top ten things I miss (and don't miss) about Yellowstone and YVO

September 23, 2019

"It's been two years now since I stepped away from YVO, and I wanted to take this time to reflect a bit on my experiences with the observatory and as a scientist working in Yellowstone." - Jake Lowenstern, YVO Scientist-in-Charge for 15 years

Yellowstone Caldera Chronicles is a weekly column written by scientists and collaborators of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory. This week's contribution is from Jake Lowenstern, Chief of the USGS Volcano Disaster Assistance Program and former Scientist-in-Charge of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory.

Dr. Jacob Lowenstern, Scientist-in-Charge of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory during 2002-2017.
Dr. Jacob Lowenstern, Scientist-in-Charge of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory during 2002-2017. In this photo, he's leading a field trip in Yellowstone National Park with a group of international volcanologists. (Credit: Patrick Allard. Public domain.)

I started as Scientist-in-Charge at YVO on November 1, 2002, two days before the Denali earthquake in Alaska, triggered a suite of ~1000 temblors at Yellowstone, 2000 miles away. And sometimes it seemed like things never calmed down. There were numerous more earthquake swarms, uplift/subsidence of the caldera, and forest fires. As an observatory, we created science plans, hazards assessments, and crisis protocols. As scientists, we made lots of key observations and published our results. And the public's interest in Yellowstone's volcanic nature continued to rise.

After fifteen years, I was ready to try something different, and I was excited that Mike Poland was ready to take my place. The observatory was also in good hands with Jamie Farrell at the University of Utah gaining responsibility as YVO's chief seismologist, and Jeff Hungerford ably taking over as the Yellowstone park geologist. Additions of the state geological surveys, University of Wyoming and UNAVCO to the consortium of institutions that make up YVO broadened the scope and capabilities of the observatory.

In January 2018, I moved to the Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, WA, where I started as Chief of the Volcano Disaster Assistance Program (VDAP), a group of 20+ volcano experts who assist volcano observatories around the world. With generous support from USAID, we donate volcano-monitoring equipment, train colleagues in its use, teach geology, seismology, and geochemistry, and assist with forecasts of volcanic activity at dangerous volcanoes that pose threats to populations around the world. It's a job that is very satisfying…knowing that we are improving our partners' ability to protect people, and vastly expanding the expertise of our colleagues. Over the past two years I've visited volcano observatories in nine countries, helped respond to numerous eruptions, and made lots of new friends in the process.

I have to admit, I miss lots of aspects of my work at Yellowstone, and in this week's Yellowstone Caldera Chronicles, I want to share my Top 5 things I miss and don't miss about working there (in no particular order).

Things I miss about Yellowstone and YVO:

  1. Hiking into the backcountry and visiting new thermal areas. Each one is so different and the overnight trips are incredibly fun to plan and carry out.
  2. Working with my YVO colleagues, both at the USGS and at the other YVO partner agencies. Fifteen years is enough time to develop a lot of wonderful friends and colleagues, and I had the opportunity to work with a lot of smart, motivated, and kind people.
  3. Geysers. Where else do you get to work in a place with geysers? Somehow, however, Steamboat Geyser erupted only six times during my tenure, including only two in the last eleven years (post-2006). With 68 (and counting!) eruptions in 2018–19, I'm starting to take this personally. WTHeck Yellowstone!
  4. Research: The geology of Yellowstone is pretty amazing. You have two-billion-year-old Beartooth basement rocks, 50-million-year-old petrified forests and Absaroka volcanics, the recent Yellowstone Plateau volcanic field with its giant ignimbrites and lava flows, and then the imprint of hydrothermal activity interacting with it all. What a wonderland!
  5. The animals: I have to admit I wasn't too pleased when we had multiple backcountry trips canceled due to marauding grizzly bears, but I'm glad those awe-inspiring animals have a home at Yellowstone. I never saw a lynx or wolverine, but I saw pretty much every other major critter that calls the park home.

OK. Time now for the things I don't miss:

  1. Bear jams: If you've ever been to Yellowstone in the summer, you know what I'm talking about. You can spend hours in traffic… in a three-mile backup of cars stopped so that people can stare at a bear scratching its ear a quarter-mile away. Bison jams are just as bad.
  2. Road Construction: Pretty much every year there's some part of the park that's challenging to reach or closed due to road improvements. In contrast with bear jams, you can plan around this particular inconvenience, but you don't usually get to see a bear.
  3. Mosquitoes: Granted, we almost always planned our visits to Yellowstone to avoid these pests, but they could certainly ruin an afternoon hike or sampling trip in June.
  4. Supervolcano: Trying to serve as a source of public information on this topic is clearly a no-win deal. Yes… these kinds of events do occur somewhere on Earth every few tens of thousands of years, and yes, if it happens again, it could be devastating to society. But, no… there is minimal chance that Yellowstone is going to erupt this century, and we are not hiding evidence to the contrary. Get over it!
  5. Actually, there really aren't five things to gripe about. It's too nice a place!

Thanks for reading. If you'd like to see some of my photos and travels around Yellowstone, you can visit this article I wrote last year for the Traveling Geologist website.