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Just what is the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory?

January 8, 2018

To most people, the idea of a volcano "observatory" conjures image of a building that looks out at an active volcano, staffed by scientists who keep watch using an array of instrumentation. In many places, this is true. 

LANDSAT-5 image of Yellowstone region acquired September 22, 1987

For example, the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory—one of the 5 observatories located in the United States—features a tower with a commanding view of the summit of KILAUEA, the most active volcano on Earth. In some parts of the world, having an observatory building with a good view of a volcano is critical for making measurements and collecting observations. The Yellowstone Volcano Observatory (YVO) is different, however—there is no building, and its diverse team of scientists is spread across the western United States.

One might expect that YVO is a scientist-staffed physical facility located within or near Yellowstone National Park. After all, Yellowstone is the largest volcanic system in the world, and bears watching! In fact, there is no actual structure to house YVO. What's more, YVO is not simply an operation of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Instead, it is a consortium of partners who share the goal of monitoring and better understanding Yellowstone's volcanic activity. These characteristics make YVO unique among the volcano observatories of the world.

Let's start with the lack of a building. That may seem odd, but there is no need for an on-site presence. Yellowstone is far too vast for a single point to provide a suitable observation post. The only place with a commanding view of the area is on top of Mount Washburn (elevation 10,243 feet), and that spot is not accessible most months of the year due to Yellowstone's harsh winters.

The volcanic system has also not experienced an eruption of magma for about 70,000 years, when the most recent lava flow was emplaced. Visual observations of volcanic activity are therefore not critical for monitoring Yellowstone's activity. Regardless, the National Park Service staff, as well as some private citizens, provide abundant on-site observations of thermal and geyser activity, so there is certainly a "boots on the ground" presence at Yellowstone.

Finally, Yellowstone is host to a vast array of instrumentation that is constantly recording data that can be accessed via the Internet. This includes not only the seismic and deformation stations, but also records of water levels and chemistry, temperatures of thermal areas, and other geological information. These data can be viewed by scientists across the country in real time with just a few clicks of a mouse, and without the need to travel to Yellowstone. Indeed, the YVO Scientist-in-Charge has never resided in the Yellowstone area. The park geologist, however, does live on site and represents YVO when needed.

This brings us to the second unique aspect of YVO—that it is not an operation run by USGS, but rather a consortium of agencies: USGS, the National Park Service, the University of Utah (which operates the Yellowstone seismic network), UNAVCO (which maintains GPS stations, borehole tiltmeters and strainmeters, and lake monitors within Yellowstone National Park), the University of Wyoming, the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology, the Wyoming State Geological Survey, and the Idaho Geological Survey.

The consortium includes scientists with extensive experience in volcanology. The research and monitoring work accomplished by these scientists is critical to not only understanding what is happening beneath the ground, but also to determining whether or not any hazardous activity may be imminent. In the event of a crisis, all of the partners would come together in Yellowstone National Park to assess potential outcomes and provide expert guidance to emergency managers.

Although this non-traditional approach to a volcano observatory would not work everywhere, it has served YVO well since its founding in 2001. So the next time you think about YVO, don't think of a building. Rather, think about the large team spread across the western United States that is collaborating behind the scenes to provide the best and most current information about Yellowstone volcanism.

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