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January 23, 2023

Studying Yellowstone’s volcanic, earthquake, and hydrothermal activity requires careful consideration of impacts on the landscape and heritage of the park. YVO has been fortunate to work with Annie Carlson, Research Permitting Coordinator in Yellowstone National Park, to ensure we are good stewards while monitoring for hazards and undertaking scientific research.

Yellowstone Caldera Chronicles is a weekly column written by scientists and collaborators of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory. This week's contribution is from Michael Poland, geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey and Scientist-in-Charge of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory.

Better knowledge of Yellowstone’s past volcanism and current behavior is key for understanding the potential for future hazardous activity, like volcanic eruptions, strong earthquakes and hydrothermal explosions.  Data collection, however, must be balanced against the impact on Yellowstone National Park, much of which is managed as a wilderness.

Annie Carlson, Research Permitting Coordinator for Yellowstone National Park during 2017–2023
Annie Carlson, Research Permitting Coordinator for Yellowstone National Park during 2017–2023. National Park Service photo by Jake Frank, May 2022.

Scientists can’t simply install a seismometer or collect a rock sample wherever they want without considering the impact on natural and cultural resources.  To ensure that YVO scientists remain good stewards of the park, they must apply for a permit before doing any work in Yellowstone.  The permit application is evaluated by the park in collaboration with discipline experts based on the balance between the importance of the work and any potential negative impacts.

Since 2017, YVO has been extraordinarily fortunate to work with Annie Carlson, Research Permitting Coordinator for Yellowstone National Park, to ensure that the necessary science and monitoring can be accomplished in support of the Observatory’s hazards mission. 

YVO and academic collaborators have submitted dozens of proposals to work in Yellowstone, including projects that involve permanent installations of geophysical equipment and detailed investigations of geologic deposits.  This work sometimes occurs in very sensitive areas, like on or near geyser cones, and has the potential to mar the landscape if equipment is permanently installed or samples are collected.  Clearly not all such work is appropriate in all areas of the park, and careful consideration of numerous factors is important.  Will the work impact the visitor experience?  Is there potential for damage to natural resources?  Does the proposal respect the cultural heritage of Yellowstone?  What maintenance or follow-up work will be needed?  Will the work result in reducing the exposure of park visitors and nearby residents to geologic hazards?  Can the research be conducted safely given hydrothermal, weather, and animal hazards in the park?  Could the work be done in a different place or with a different approach and still meet the desired goals?

Annie Carlson, Research Permitting Coordinator for Yellowstone National Park during 2017–2023, during a winter ski expedition in the park
Annie Carlson, Research Permitting Coordinator for Yellowstone National Park during 2017–2023, during a winter ski expedition in the park. National Park Service photo by Jon Nicholson, January 2020.

The Research Permitting Office is the first and strongest line of defense against poorly conceived and badly planned proposals, and for the past 5 years Annie Carlson, as the Research Permitting Coordinator, has deftly balanced the need for geoscience research and monitoring with the National Park Service mission of conservation, preservation, and stewardship.  Annie recognizes that Yellowstone is an amazing natural laboratory and that studies in the park can have incredible benefits to society—like the discovery of bacteria in a hot spring that went on to be critical to COVID-19 testing!  At the same time, human impacts on resources like geysers and hot springs can be serious and irreversible.  When a proposal would unacceptably impact resources in Yellowstone, Annie works with the proposal team to find means of fulfilling research goals without threatening the natural, historical, and cultural resources within the park. 

Thanks to Annie’s support, YVO has been able to install and maintain new monitoring stations, like the continuous gas sensors near Mud Volcano and seismic and deformation monitoring networks throughout Yellowstone National Park.  Her guidance has been vital to enhancing YVO’s ability study active geologic processes, like earthquake swarms, and to communicate hazards-related information to the public.  Annie’s collaborative spirit and dedication to understanding the purpose and importance of diverse research efforts are an exceptional example of how scientists and land managers can work together to increase knowledge and reduce the impact of geologic hazards while also caring for the landscape and its history.

Frosted trees in the Fairy Falls area of Yellowstone National Park near the Firehole River
Frosted trees in the Fairy Falls area of Yellowstone National Park near the Firehole River—one of Annie's favorite areas of the park during a unique time of year.  National Park Service photo by Annie Carlson, 2014.

Annie’s work has not been limited to supporting YVO, of course.  She manages about 140 individual research permits that address topics ranging from geophysical investigations to insect biology that is unique to hot springs. This diversity of experience, coupled with her years of work in the park even before her time as Research Permitting Coordinator (Annie lived year-round in the Old Faithful area when she served as an interpretive ranger during 2013–2017), have given Annie encyclopedic knowledge of Yellowstone’s geological, biological, and ecological history and processes.  A day in the field with Annie is guaranteed to be a learning experience!

This week, Annie departs Yellowstone to take on the role of Chief of Resources at Western Arctic National Parklands—living above the Artic Circle!

YVO would like to express our appreciation to Annie Carlson for her years of service in helping to enhance science in Yellowstone National Park while also defining what it is to be a good steward of the resources that the park manages.  We wish Annie and her husband Jon Nicholson (also a Yellowstone National Park employee with years of experience in interpretation and resource management!) all the best with their new jobs and new home, and we hope to see them back in Yellowstone in the future!

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