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December 18, 2023

Yellowstone National Park is a tapestry of natural wonders, where geysers erupt in spectacular displays, serene lakes mirror the vast skies, and American bison roam in their natural habitat. Yet, amidst this breathtaking backdrop, a less told story unfolds—the story of the challenges of conducting scientific research in this awe-inspiring yet formidable landscape.

Yellowstone Caldera Chronicles is a weekly column written by scientists and collaborators of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory. This week's contribution is from Jennifer Lewicki, research geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Moffett Field, CA.

Bison in Yellowstone National Park
Bison in Yellowstone National Park. USGS photo by Jennifer Lewicki, September 20, 2023.

Yellowstone National Park serves as an outdoor laboratory, offering invaluable insights across numerous scientific fields such as geology, hydrology, biology, ecology, and archaeology. But conducting research there is no small feat, especially in areas frequently traversed by bison, which can unwittingly become formidable obstacles to scientific efforts.  One of the more amusing yet problematic issues USGS scientists have faced is when bison use gas monitoring stations as scratching posts. The sheer size and strength of these animals mean that delicate instruments can be easily damaged in what for the bison is a moment of itch-relieving bliss. This behavior, while seemingly innocent, can lead to costly repairs and loss of valuable data.  Bison also leave their mark in other less destructive ways. For instance, researchers have often found their solar panels adorned with the nose prints of curious bison. These prints, while harmless, serve as a humorous reminder of the proximity of these large mammals to sensitive research equipment.

Most visitors to Yellowstone have found themselves in a “bison jam” at one time or another, where herds congregate and block roads or trails. Researchers often experience these bison jams at, or on the way to, their field sites, thus finding themselves in a waiting game, hunkered down at a safe distance until the herd decides to move on. These delays, while part of the unique experience of working in Yellowstone, can disrupt carefully planned research schedules.

USGS scientists carrying field equipment to set up a gas monitoring station in Yellowstone National Park
USGS scientists Laura Dobeck and Sara Peek carrying field equipment to set up a gas monitoring station in Yellowstone National Park. USGS photo by Jennifer Lewicki, July 13, 2021.

Yellowstone’s numerous and diverse geothermal features, while fascinating subjects of study, also present their own set of challenges. Mud pools, for instance, are captivating but can be quite troublesome when they spew mud onto solar panels, instruments, and trail camera lenses. This mud can disrupt instrument operation, requiring frequent cleaning and maintenance.  Emissions of acid gases, like hydrogen sulfide, from geothermal features can also corrode metal components of equipment, which is a constant concern for researchers relying on these instruments for long-term data collection.

Weather conditions in the park add another layer of complexity to scientific research. The heavy winter snowfall typical of the region can crush delicate instruments and cover solar panels, disrupting power supply and data collection. Batteries, essential for powering field equipment, are also susceptible to freezing in the park's frigid winter temperatures. And in the summer, lightning strikes can bring down not only individual instruments, but also the radio repeaters needed for real-time communication of monitoring data.

Deploying instruments in the backcountry of Yellowstone requires immense effort. Researchers often embark on strenuous hikes, carrying heavy loads over rugged terrain to reach remote locations. This physically demanding task is essential for setting up and maintaining equipment in areas that are key to different types of research and monitoring. The effort and time invested in these deployments reflect the commitment of scientists working in this unique environment.

Conducting scientific research in Yellowstone National Park is a challenging endeavor that requires resilience, adaptability, and often a sense of humor. From encounters with bison to the harsh environmental conditions, these complexities are part and parcel of the unique and rewarding experience of working in one of America's most iconic natural landscapes.

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