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May means the start of geological field work in Yellowstone, and the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory has a lot planned for 2022!

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.

May is an exciting time for geologists when it comes to Yellowstone—by that month, enough snow has usually melted to allow for the start of field work!  And the field season typically lasts until October or November.

Scientists install a semipermanent GPS station in Yellowstone National Park
Scientists install a semipermanent GPS station in Yellowstone National Park.  These stations, which are not radio-telemetered, are typically installed in May and recovered in October, when the data are downloaded and processed.  These stations help to supplement the continuous GPS network in the Yellowstone area.

Last week, Yellowstone Volcano Observatory scientists kicked off the field season with several projects.  Geophysicists installed 15 semipermanent GPS stations around the park.  These are low-profile sites that run on battery power with a small solar panel but that are not telemetered, so the data cannot be downloaded via radio.  For the past 15 years the stations have been set up in the spring and picked up in the fall (before they are snowed in), and the data downloaded and processed upon returning to the office.  The data aren’t useful for real-time monitoring, but they densify the existing continuous GPS network and can help scientists better understand processes like episodes of uplift at Norris Geyser Basin.

Scientists also performed maintenance on the Norris temperature monitoring network—a telemetered system of sensors that logs temperatures from features in Norris Geyser Basin, like Steamboat Geyser, and provides online daily updates of results.  Each spring, batteries need to be replaced, and sensors that went offline during the winter need to be repaired.  During this most recent trip, special attention was dedicated to one site that had not been operational since January. Upon investigating, it was found that the tree to which the radio antenna was attached had fallen during the winter, meaning that the antenna was no longer able to communicate with the base station radio.  Removing the antenna and attaching it to a different tree solved the issue!

Yellowstone Volcano Observatory scientists also met in person for the first time in 4 years!  The meeting, held in Mammoth Hot Springs, was a chance to discuss future plans and share some of the scientific results that had accumulated since the last meeting of the consortium in 2018.

Aerial view looking northwest from the south end of the Norris Back...
Norris Geyser Basin looking northwest from the south, Yellowstone National Park. Insert shows location of Norris Geyser Basin (red square) within the park boundary (green). Red letters label locations of telemetered temperature sensors.

In the coming weeks, additional work will focus on adding more power capacity to a continuous gas monitoring station in the Mud Volcano area.  That station was installed in July 2021, but heavy snow in December caused it to lose power, so an upgrade for the power system is needed to ensure continuous operation through the coming winter.  Geochemists will also add additional gas monitoring equipment at the site later this summer.

A major campaign is also planned to collect gas and water samples from a variety of thermal areas in Yellowstone National Park.  The work will include a trip to the park’s newest thermal area, near Tern Lake on the east side of the caldera.  Sampling gases from that site might provide information on the early evolution of a Yellowstone thermal area, to complement data from older thermal regions that are now cold, like Brimstone Basin.

Later in the summer, geophysicists hope to install a new monitoring station in the Norris Geyser Basin area that is capable of detecting earthquakes, ground deformation, and infrasound (low-frequency sound waves that cannot be “heard” by humans).  Such a station would be a first step toward better monitoring hydrothermal basins for changes that might be hazardous—for example, small steam explosions like the one that occurred at Porkchop Geyser in 1989.

All of the work is done in collaboration with Yellowstone National Park to ensure that the monitoring and research efforts do not impact the natural and cultural resources that make Yellowstone the wonderland it is. 

As the work progresses and research is published, we’ll be sure to report the results in future editions of Yellowstone Caldera Chronicles.  The Yellowstone Volcano Observatory is looking forward to yet another great season of field work in 2022.  Maybe we’ll see you in the park this summer!

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