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Founding the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory

Before YVO's founding, research had been conducted on the volcanism and tectonics of the Yellowstone region since the 1960s by the University of Utah, U.S. Geological Survey and Yellowstone National Park. A meeting in the year 2000 spurred a fruitful conversation, and by 2001 the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory was born.

Yellowstone Caldera Chronicles is a weekly column written by scientists and collaborators of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory. This week's contribution is from Robert Smith, Distinguished Research Professor with the University of Utah and a founding member of the YVO consortium, and Marianne Guffanti, emeritus research geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.

Yellowstone Volcano Observatory graphic image. Geyser and caldera outline.
Graphics image depicts the Yellowstone National Park boundary with the Yellowstone Caldera in red and Old Faithful Geyser in eruption. (Public domain.)

Volcano observatories sometimes have their origins in important geologic events. For instance, the Cascades Volcano Observatory was established following the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, while the Alaska Volcano Observatory was realized after the 1986 eruption of Augustine volcano. The roots of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory (YVO), however, lie at a different volcano altogether—Lassen Peak in California!

In 2000 Dr. Robert (Bob) Smith, supervisor of the Yellowstone Seismic Network at the University of Utah, and Dr. Marianne Guffanti, program coordinator of the USGS Volcano Program, were at a workshop at Lassen Volcanic National Park. While walking across Bumpass Hell, a notable hydrothermal system similar to those of Yellowstone, Bob asked "So, why doesn't Yellowstone monitoring warrant status as an Observatory, since we are doing just what the other Observatories are doing?" Marianne thought for a moment and replied, "You're right. It should be." Also at the workshop were Bob Christiansen, the lead USGS Yellowstone geologist, and Paul Doss, the Yellowstone National Park geologist. The four scientists gathered that evening and determined to make YVO a reality. A Memorandum of Understanding was signed in May 2001 by the USGS, University of Utah, and Yellowstone National Park. Thus began the scientific cooperation, as well as the distribution and archiving of research and monitoring information, that has been a hallmark of YVO.

The objectives of YVO included seismic, ground deformation, and geochemical monitoring of Yellowstone to enable timely warnings and information on possible renewed volcanism, hydrothermal activity, and earthquakes in the region. The Observatory was specifically tasked with notifying Yellowstone National Park, local officials, and the public of significant seismic or volcanic events. Moreover, these goals were designed to improve scientific understanding of magmatic and tectonic processes that influence ongoing seismicity, surface deformation, and hydrothermal activity.

Importantly, YVO improved coordination. communication and cooperation among its members. Regular discussions provided timely information and focused attention on the greatest needs for scientific and monitoring advances. During notable periods of unrest, like 2008–2009 and 2010 seismic swarms and the 2003 thermal disturbance at Norris Geyser Basin, continuous communication between YVO scientists and Yellowstone National Park management conveyed the details and implications of the events.

YVO also served as a platform for coordinating improvements to the monitoring networks in the region. A volcano and earthquake monitoring plan for Yellowstone was developed in 2006 to improve scientific understanding of the Yellowstone system and provide monitoring that could anticipate hazardous events before they occurred. In addition, YVO developed a formal plan to guide the response to any noteworthy volcanic, earthquake, and hydrothermal events.

Map of Yellowstone earthquakes as located by the University of Utah...
Red circles represent all seismicity and blue circles represent earthquakes as part of earthquake swarms. The size of the circles is scaled to the magnitude of the earthquake. The 630,000 year old Yellowstone caldera is shown as a bold black line within Yellowstone National Park. Mapped faults are shown as light gray lines. (Credit: Farrell, Jamie. Public domain.)

Among the needs of the Observatory were to upgrade its seismograph network to modern standards and to add new seismograph stations in areas of the park lacking adequate station density—work that has been completed over the course of the past 15 years. YVO also facilitated the expansion of GPS monitoring, which was begun by the University of Utah, to include additional stations, as well as borehole strainmeters and tiltmeters that are now collectively operated by UNAVCO.

In cooperation with Yellowstone National Park's geothermal monitoring program, data and interpretations from new stream gages, as well as discrete gas and water samples collected from around the region, allowed YVO to compare a broad range of geological and geophysical phenomena, such as how hydrothermal systems respond to earthquakes. YVO further dedicated attention toward characterizing the detailed behavior of geyser basins, both to detect any precursors to hydrothermal explosions and to monitor seismic and geodetically determined ground movement related to fluid migration—capabilities that were in need of upgrading prior to YVO's development.

Finally, as a monitoring network consists not solely of instruments but also requires a secure system for real-time data transmission, YVO encouraged updates of telemetry systems for seismic, GPS, and other data types and also planned for future advances in monitoring technologies.

The overall YVO monitoring strategy was to (1) maximize the ability to provide rapid real-time assessments of changing conditions to ensure public safety, (2) minimize environmental and visual impact, (3) provide the next generation seismic and ground deformation geodetic instrumentation, and (4) continue the communication of monitoring and scientific information to the public, researchers, the NPS and the USGS.

Nowadays, it's not just the University of Utah, USGS, and Yellowstone National Park that make up YVO. In 2013, the consortium expanded to include the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology, the Wyoming State Geological Survey, the Idaho Geological Survey, the University of Wyoming, and UNAVCO. In 2020 YVO will be adding a new member—stay tuned to Caldera Chronicles to find out who!

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