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YVO’s 2021 field season is underway!

For half the year, Yellowstone is largely inaccessible to geologists, buried under snow and ice and subject to fierce storms.  By May, however, improved weather and melting snow opens the park to field work.  The 2021 field season promises to be a productive one for the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory.

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.

This past week saw the some of the first field work of the year by Yellowstone Volcano Observatory (YVO) scientists in Yellowstone National Park.  The opening of the 2021 field season provides an opportunity to preview YVO’s plans for the next few months, before the snow starts accumulating once again and the field season ends in November.

image related to volcanoes. See description
USGS scientists Rebecca Kramer and Dan Dzurisin install a solar panel and GPS antenna (green square) at a semipermanent GPS station in the southern part of Yellowstone National Park. The work first required digging through 4 feet of snow! USGS photo by Brian Meyers on May 21, 2019.

Over the past several days, geophysicists installed about 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 14 years the stations have been set up every May and picked up every October before they are snowed in, and the data downloaded and processed upon return 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 past episodes of uplift at Norris Geyser Basin.

The Norris temperature network was also in need of maintenance.  These 9 sites stream temperature data from a number of features in Norris Geyser Basin, like Steamboat Geyser, providing indications of when geyser eruptions or thermal disturbances occur.  The data can be accessed on the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory monitoring pages.  Each station is powered by batteries that must be changed every 1–2 years, and temperature probes and data loggers that failed during the harsh winter months need to be replaced.  Work done during the past week will ensure that the network continues to operate all summer long.

A number of continuous GPS and seismic monitoring stations will be visited in the coming months to conduct repairs and upgrades.  For example, a few seismometers are in need of maintenance to solve mechanical problems that occurred over the winter.  In addition, new radio equipment is planned for installation on Sawtell Peak and Mount Washburn to ensure that there is redundancy to the communications network in case one of the relay stations goes down during the winter, when access to conduct repairs is difficult.  Seismologists also plan to deploy temporary stations around Norris Geyser Basin, including Steamboat Geyser, to follow up on recent work that used seismicity to map the plumbing systems of the area’s geysers.

The YVO gas geochemistry team will recover an eddy covariance system that has been operating since 2018 near Norris Geyser Basin.  That system records heat flux and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, but it malfunctioned late in 2020, and the components need to be refurbished before the system can be redeployed in 2022.  In it’s 2+ years operating near Norris, the system was able to characterize remarkably consistent background rates of CO2 emissions from that area.  The team will also deploy a Multi-GAS system near Mud Volcano this summer.  The Multi-GAS instrument is capable of measuring several types of volcanic gases, so deploying it to the Mud Volcano area should prove interesting, given evidence that the location has experienced past fluctuations in gas emissions.

image related to volcanoes. See description
Montana State University students at an outcrop along Highway 20, in Idaho, sampling the Mesa Falls Tuff fall deposit exposed just beneath the ignimbrite. Photo by Madison Myers (Montana State University) on June 9, 2019.

Geologists will continue a broad range of studies of Yellowstone’s dynamic volcanism.  A major effort to map and determine the ages of hydrothermal explosion craters in Lower Geyser Basin began in 2020 and will continue in the coming summer, as will efforts to more precisely determine the ages of rhyolite lava flows that erupted since the formation of Yellowstone Caldera.  The post-glacial history of the Yellowstone region will also be further investigated, particularly some of the hydrothermal explosion sites on the north side of Yellowstone Lake, and efforts to catalog all of the hydrothermal features in the Park will also continue.  Finally, geologists hope to complete an update to the geological map of Yellowstone by field checking a few remaining areas of uncertainty in the mapping.  The map should be ready for presentation in time for the sesquicentennial of Yellowstone National Park in 2022.

Summer in Yellowstone is always a busy time for geological studies—an entire year of work must be packed into a few precious months of good weather and snow-free conditions!  And the field work is now under way for 2021.  We’ll provide an update on our progress this fall, as the snow returns in earnest and YVO winds down from what promises to be yet another exciting and productive summer.

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