This week I'm stepping down as the Scientist-in-Charge of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory (YVO). I've held this role since 2002, and it's been an incredibly rewarding 15 years. Recently, I was offered the opportunity to lead the Volcano Disaster Assistance Program (VDAP), where I'll work with my USGS colleagues to assist volcano observatories in developing countries that face daunting volcanic risk. VDAP is a vibrant program created 31 years ago, and is arguably the premier team of volcano scientists on the globe.
It's not without sadness, though, that I will move on from my work at Yellowstone. I've cherished my many visits to the park, starting with trips as a child and young adult, and later, as a geologist. I've worked with outstanding scientists from our YVO partners and indeed from around the world. I've had the incredible good fortune to travel to remote areas around the park to research the variations in gases that can inform our understanding of the subsurface beneath Yellowstone. Our work has gone smoothly, largely due to the staff of Yellowstone National Park, which is incredibly dedicated to ensuring that visitors and researchers alike get the most of their visits and leave Wonderland without incident. For the many Yellowstone lovers out there in the world, I wanted to take a little time to say a proper goodbye, to recount how we got to the present day, and to reflect on some of what's been learned.
Though I'm sad to be moving on, I'm delighted that the observatory will be in excellent hands. Mike Poland will take over as Scientist-in-Charge. Mike has been with the USGS for fifteen years, and is a veteran of both the Cascades and Hawaiian Volcano Observatories. He is an expert in volcano deformation, and in using satellites to track the subtle ups and downs of volcanic terrain that can indicate magma movement below. That's a very useful expertise at Yellowstone, where earthquakes and ground deformation are the dominant monitored signals. Speaking of earthquakes, Jamie Farrell, at the University of Utah has taken over much of the responsibility for the Yellowstone Seismic Network. After many years working with his mentor Bob Smith, Jamie has gained unparalleled experience in studying Yellowstone earthquakes and the deep magma below. In fact, Jamie was responsible for most of the colorful images of the Yellowstone magma reservoir that you've probably seen on the internet. Jefferson Hungerford is the brand new Park Geologist at Yellowstone. His expertise in volcano science, industrious nature, and remarkable good cheer will serve him well as the park focal point for all things geological.
Now a bit of the history…In 2002, during my first weekend as Scientist-in-Charge, the Denali Earthquake struck in Alaska. Surprisingly, when the surface waves hit Yellowstone, some 2000 miles away, it induced hundreds of local earthquakes, many of which were felt around Yellowstone Lake. Fortunately, University of Utah Professor Bob Smith already had worked at Yellowstone for ~30 years and was able to put the activity in context and to help explain the activity to the staff of Yellowstone National Park, to me, and to Hank Heasler, who was also new in his role as the Park Geologist. This notable event threw me "in the deep end," and prepared me for the many earthquake swarms, uplift episodes, and thermal changes that followed over the next decade and a half.
In addition to Bob, I and my colleagues had the good fortune to be mentored by the generation of geologists who did the key research on Yellowstone's geologic past. Bob Christiansen of the USGS spent his summers in the 1960s and 1970s traipsing hill and dale to map out scores of lava flows and ash flow tuffs. He worked with colleagues using K-Ar dating techniques to reveal the age relations of these many events. Chris, as he's known, recognized that there were three massive explosive eruptions at Yellowstone that formed three separate calderas. He published the authoritative geologic map of Yellowstone, and served as the first Scientist-in-Charge of YVO in 2001 until he retired a year later. His contemporaries included the USGS's Ken Pierce, who deciphered much of the glacial history at Yellowstone and with Lisa Morgan traced the older volcanic systems of the Snake River Plain that preceded Yellowstone. Don White and his USGS protégées, Bob Fournier and Patrick Muffler, undertook the ambitious scientific drilling program in Yellowstone's thermal areas, mapping out the temperature and pressure gradients in the subsurface, and collecting core samples of the hydrothermal minerals that we still use as the basis for research projects today. Fournier continued his work at Yellowstone for decades, becoming one of the world's preeminent geochemists. Muffler wrote the first paper on Yellowstone's notorious hydrothermal explosion craters, which represent one of the more common hazards in the park. And of course Bob Smith of the University of Utah, is responsible for a wide swath of geophysical research ranging from Yellowstone earthquakes, to the depth and size of the subsurface magma reservoir, to heat flow and hydrothermal activity beneath Yellowstone Lake. I was incredibly fortunate to be able to learn from all these legends of Yellowstone, and to work with them to further our knowledge of the geologic history, current dynamic behavior, and potential for future activity.
The stage was set by the work of these USGS and academic researchers, as well as by fantastic park geologists such as George Marler, Wayne Hamilton and Rick Hutchinson. Though geologists were well acquainted with the Yellowstone story by the mid 1980s, it was another fifteen years before the public got wind of this amazing story. A 1999 BBC documentary, Supervolcano, interviewed Christiansen, Smith, and others, and captured the imagination of the public. In 2005, BBC and Discovery Channel combined efforts to create a docudrama of the same name. Over the following five years, a series of documentaries thoroughly saturated the market for Yellowstone Volcano, and set the stage for a decade of hyperbole and misinformation with the growth of the internet. One irony of this expansion of the Yellowstone geologic story, is that the work of the pioneering scientists has been lost from the public's mind. Most recent news stories present a simplified, and misunderstood summary of Yellowstone, without any mention of how we got our present knowledge. And the less people know about Yellowstone, or earth science, the more they tend to question the expertise of those who know it best.
Nevertheless, working at Yellowstone has been a tremendous pleasure, and we can take great pride in our accomplishments. Since 2002, we developed a monitoring plan, a hazards assessment, two successive response plans, an exercise to test our response plan, and numerous information statements and web articles to explain ongoing activity such as earthquake swarms and ground uplift. We installed borehole strainmeters and associated downhole seismometers thanks to the Plate Boundary Observatory. We spent almost $1M to expand the seismic and other networks through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. We installed miniature, radio-relayed temperature sensors at the Norris Geyser Basin. We expanded the observatory in 2013 to include eight partners, including the geological surveys of the three states that encompass Yellowstone. And we built a website and social media presence that provides detailed explanations of our work and current research efforts. And in our spare time, YVO researchers published well over 50 new research papers in the past 15 years that extend our understanding of the volcanic and hydrothermal system at Yellowstone.
In closing, I want to thank my colleagues for their generosity and friendship over an exceptional fifteen years. Most notable is Peter Cervelli, who has acted as Deputy Scientist-in-Charge for the past five years, but there are many, many others. Together, we've explored the volcano, discovered new phenomena, challenged each other's ideas, and reveled in our good fortune to be able to work at such an amazing place.
Seismic networks locate earthquakes by comparing the arrival times of seismic waves emanating from the earthquake location, or hypocenter. Very small earthquakes (less than a Magnitude 1) cannot be detected on distant seismometers and sometimes even well-located earthquakes may have horizontal and depth uncertainties of more than 0.5 km.
In order to more fully study a 2010 earthquake swarm on the Madison Plateau, in the northwest part of the Yellowstone Caldera, USGS seismologist David Shelly used a specific timeframe of seismic data and mathematical algorithms to detect and relocate tiny earthquakes. Shelly and his colleagues were able to recognize 8710 events, including many small events with magnitude as low as -1. By including these events, Shelly and his colleagues were able to understand more about the relative location of all the earthquakes and how the earthquakes migrated along the crustal fault during the 2010 swarm. The research was published in 2013 in the Journal of Geophysical Research, co-authored with colleagues form the University of Utah. Read more in the web article Taking a closer look at a Yellowstone earthquake swarm.
Natural geysers are rare on Earth; there are fewer than 1,000 worldwide, and about half of them are in Yellowstone National Park. Geysers, whose eruptions range from small bubbling pools, to roaring jets of water and steam that can reach a few hundred meters high, fascinate all who have the good fortune of witnessing one.
In a newly published paper in the "Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences", U. S. Geological Survey hydrologist, Shaul Hurwitz and his coauthor, geology professor Michael Manga at the University of California, Berkeley, synthesize the current state of knowledge about geysers. The authors review past research, and point the way to answering future questions.
Because many of the processes associated with geyser eruptions are similar to those operating in volcanoes, understanding the mechanics of geysers and how they operate can lead to better understanding and predictions of volcanic eruptions.Read the full paper, The Fascinating and Complex Dynamics of Geyser Eruptions online.
Beginning November 7, and lasting two to four weeks, two exciting studies will take place while Yellowstone National Park is in between its summer and winter seasons. They are aimed at learning more about the shallow water system that fuels the famous hot springs, geysers, and other thermal features at Yellowstone. The first is a helicopter-borne electromagnetic study of geothermal areas near the Firehole River, along the Norris-Mammoth corridor, and at the north end of Yellowstone Lake. The second is a seismic study focusing on the area near Old Faithful. The need for these studies are a result of published recommendations from a 2013 scientific committee that formed with the goal to understand ways to reduce human impacts on the park's geothermal features and protect existing park infrastructure from encroachment of hot ground.
The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), University of Wyoming, and Aarhus University, Denmark, will collaborate to study the groundwater system that feeds the iconic hydrothermal features of Yellowstone National Park. Airborne geophysical electromagnetic (EM) surveys are one of the unique tools that experts can use to examine and map subsurface location, size, shape, salinity and temperature of groundwater. The survey will map important properties of soils and subsurface rocks in order to learn more about Yellowstone's groundwater resources. Because it involves low-level helicopter flights that may disturb park visitors, the research was allowed after roads officially close, and before it opens for winter use.
The University of Utah, in collaboration with the University of Texas El Paso and the National Park Service, will place closely spaced quart-jar-sized, portable seismometers around the Upper Geyser Basin, focusing on the immediate area around Old Faithful Geyser. This is a continuation of a project started in November 2015 when a more general array was deployed for two weeks. The principal objectives of these deployments are to create an image of the shallow seismic velocity structure of the Upper Geyser Basin. The results will help the park service plan for engineering projects relating to developed structures in the area. In addition, data will help scientists better understand the underground fluid flow pathways and hydrothermal properties between geysers and hot springs of the Upper Geyser Basin, including Old Faithful. Importantly, the dense grid of seismometers deployed on the cone of Old Faithful will help us learn more about how the geyser acts before, during, and after eruptions.To learn more about these surveys, download our November 2016 FAQ.
Over the past few years, we've recorded interviews with a number of the scientists who did critical work revealing Yellowstone's volcanic past and present. Our latest installment includes two interviews with Dr. Ken Pierce, a glaciologist and geomorphologist who works today as an emeritus scientists with the USGS in Bozeman, MT. Pierce has written scores of important articles on the geology of Yellowstone, and these two videos give you a flavor of the man and his career.Glaciation in the Greater Yellowstone Area
Interested in supereruptions? This May 2016 talk by USGS scientist Larry Mastin summarizes how we model ash transport after volcanic eruptions, which was applied to some of the big eruptions in Yellowstone's past. The work follows on to Larry's 2014 publication that was summarized as a series of FAQs on our website. The lecture discusses Yellowstone and it's history, but it also discusses the broader study of ash plumes in the atmosphere and how researchers are keen to develop methods to estimate how and where ash will fall after big eruptions.Our website multimedia section hosts a variety of earlier lectures on Yellowstone (about 15 hours worth!).
YVO staff contributed to a new USGS video entitled: "An Illustrated Guide to Reading a Seismogram." This off-beat video provides a short, introductory lesson on how the seismic plots are generated and the potential sources for "signals" on a seismogram.
If you're looking for additional insight on Yellowstone geology, three video interviews were added in September. USGS Video Producer Steve Wessells conducted interviews with some of the key USGS scientists who unlocked the secrets to Yellowstone's volcanic and geothermal history. Bob Christiansen, Patrick Muffler and Bob Fournier reminisce about their early careers working at Yellowstone in the 1960s and 1970s.
The likelihood of a volcanic supereruption from Yellowstone, or any other location on Earth, remains very low in any given year, yet the U.S. Geological Survey is frequently asked about the likely thickness and distribution of ash deposits if Yellowstone were to erupt. This prompted USGS scientists to use a new computer model called Ash3D to simulate the distribution of volcanic ash from a hypothetical large explosive eruption at Yellowstone. A research paper explaining the results was published in Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems on August 27, 2014, and we have developed some FAQ to help explain the background to this study.
The researchers discovered that during very large volcanic eruptions, ash transport is dominated by a rapidly expanding umbrella cloud that results in significant distribution of ash upwind from the volcanic vent. "In essence, the eruption makes its own winds that can overcome the prevailing westerlies that normally dominate weather patterns in the United States," explained USGS geologist Larry Mastin, first author on the manuscript and co-developer of the computer model. "This helps explain the distribution from large Yellowstone eruptions of the past, where considerable amounts of ash reached the west coast." The authors also note that a fraction of an inch or less of ash is likely to be deposited at distances further than 1500 miles, such as on the east and west coasts of the United States. To learn more, please read our Frequently Asked Questions about the model and its application to Yellowstone.
Though we love doing research at YVO, we prefer it when the research is on topics geological rather than the origin of false rumors. Nevertheless, we have received enough concerned emails and phone calls that we've spent some time tracking down a few of the statements made on various "alternative Internet news sources."
1) First, everyone should know that geological activity, including earthquakes and ground uplift/subsidence is well within historical norms and seismicity is actually a bit low at present.
2) Concern over road closures is much overblown. There's been one road closure of a small side road – just over three miles long – that was closed for two days. As one can imagine, it is not easy to maintain roads that pass over thermal areas where ground temperatures can approach those of boiling water. Roads at Yellowstone often need repair because of damage by thermal features as well as extreme cold winter conditions.
3) The park has not been evacuated. This one is pretty easy to verify by everyone. If the Old Faithful webcam shows people, or if news articles are coming out about a hobbyist's remote control helicopter crashing into a hot spring, Yellowstone is certainly open for business.
4) No volcanologists have stated that Yellowstone is likely to erupt this week, this month or this year. In one recent article, a name was attributed to a "senior volcanologist", but that person does not appear to exist, and a geologist with that name assures us that he did not supply any quotes regarding Yellowstone.
5) Finally, we note that those who've kept track of Yellowstone over the past decade or so, have seen a constant stream of "predictions" regarding imminent eruptions at Yellowstone. Many have had specific dates in mind, none had a scientific basis, and none have come true.
We will continue to provide updates on geological activity at Yellowstone, and educational materials to help understand the science around Yellowstone monitoring.
Virtually everything known about Yellowstone's spectacular volcanic past comes from the scientists who work at this observatory, at all our eight member agencies. We're the ones who mapped the deposits, figured out the ages of the eruptions, measured the gases, located the earthquakes, and tracked the ground movement. A few of us have been doing it for over forty years. We will continue to help you understand what's happening at Yellowstone now, and what's likely to happen in the future.
How do we know what's beneath Yellowstone, and how can we image the shallow magma? Seismologists at the University of Utah (a YVO member agency) and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology undertook a study to image the Yellowstone magma reservoir through a technique called seismic tomography. Using improved methods and data from thousands of earthquakes; they discovered that the magma reservoir is much larger than inferred in previous studies. Read our website article to find out how the study was conducted and what they discovered. The complete results from this new approach are published in the Journal Geophysical Research Letters.
Scientists from the University of Utah – a YVO partner agency – recently presented new research at the Fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco that suggests that the size of the magma body beneath Yellowstone is significantly larger than had been thought. Previous similar studies had underestimated the size of the magma body because of insufficient instrumentation. Over the past decade, improvements to the Yellowstone monitoring network has increased the number and quality of the instruments deployed. This new research takes advantage of these upgrades, which will continue to pay dividends for years to come.
The UU researchers, in collaboration with a scientist from the Swiss Seismological Service in Zurich, used a method called seismic tomography to create an improved image of the magmatic system beneath Yellowstone. One should not think of Yellowstone's magma reservoir as a big cavern full of churning lava. Rather, the reservoir is distributed throughout a porous, sponge-like body of otherwise solid rock, with the amount of liquid rock (melt) varying from place to place. Because seismic waves slow down when traveling through liquids, seismic tomography can be used to map out these variations. The new research shows that while the magma reservoir is bigger than we thought, the proportion of melt to solid rock (estimated at <10-15%) is similar to previous reports and appears to remain way too low for a giant eruption.
Although fascinating, the new findings do not imply increased geologic hazards at Yellowstone, and certainly do not increase the chances of a "supereruption" in the near future. Contrary to some media reports, Yellowstone is not "overdue" for a supereruption. Indeed, it is quite possible that such an eruption will never again occur from the Yellowstone region. Scientist agree that smaller eruptions are likely in the future, but the probability of ANY sort of eruption at Yellowstone still remains very low over the next 10 to 100 years.
YVO scientists from organizations around the country continually monitor geologic conditions at Yellowstone. At present those conditions are normal and there is no heightened concern for public safety. Should conditions change, an established alert system will quickly notify public officials, the general public, and the media. YVO posts regular updates about activity at Yellowstone, which can be found on the activity update webpage. We encourage you to explore our website for additional information on geologic hazards and current activity at Yellowstone.
The YVO webcam is offline temporarily. We hope to get it up and running soon. Please be aware that the camera runs via a solar panel and cellular modem. Unlike most similar cameras, it does not have connection to either AC power or the internet. In the interim, here's a nice image from the camera taken the last week that the camera was operational.
USGS scientist Phil Dawson and colleagues have applied a novel research approach to voice recognition software. In their January 2012 paper, published in Geophysical Research Letters, they utilize this software to discover that background seismic activity in geyser basins can be intimately linked to daily cycles of heating and cooling. For more information read the web article in the Yellowstone volcano earthquake monitoring section.
Recent telemetry problems, from ice and snow buildup on data transmission antennas, have caused intermittent malfunctions of the University of Utah's automated earthquake location system. The malfunctions result in false earthquake reports, which upon review, are then manually deleted from the earthquake catalog. The snow and ice buildup interferes with the continuous streaming of seismic data causing occasional signal dropouts. The dropouts cause spikes to appear in the data streams, which the automated system misinterprets as the abrupt appearance of a high amplitude seismic wave from an earthquake. Windy conditions, common this time of year, exacerbate the problem by contributing additional noise and thereby reducing the overall signal quality of the seismic data streams. In most cases, seismologists at the University of Utah can overcome these problems and still identify and locate earthquakes correctly. Seismic activity at Yellowstone remains at background levels.
More information about errors in the real-time earthquake system that lead to erroneous reports can be found here: Earthquake Hazards Program Errata for Real-time Earthquakes page.
Beginning October 1, 2010, the University of Utah Seismograph Stations has reduced the threshold from M 2.5 to M 1.5 for automated plotting of earthquakes for the Yellowstone region. For more information please see the UUSS announcement. See today's earthquake map.
A report, "Protocols for Geologic Hazards Response by the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory," has just been published. The document summarizes the protocols and tools that the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory (YVO) will now use during earthquakes, hydrothermal explosions, or other geological activity that could lead to a volcanic eruption. This USGS circular was written by an inter-organizational group of scientists, land managers, and emergency responders that met in November 2008 in Bozeman, Montana.
YVO has finished installing a series of radio-equipped temperature sensors to document changes in water flow and heat discharge in the Norris Geyser Basin. Daily, weekly, and monthly temperature plots are now available from our new monitoring page, "Taking the Temperature of the Norris Geyser Basin."
Geysers are rare hot springs that periodically erupt bursts of steam and hot water. Yellowstone National Park has more than half of the world's geysers. Old Faithful has remained faithful for at least the past 135 years, showering appreciative tourists every 50 to 95 minutes (most recently an annual average of 91 minutes). To view Old Faithful in real-time, see the National Park Service Old Faithful Webcam.
There were were notable changes in thermal activity at Norris Geyser Basin in 2003. These changes resulted in the closure of the Back Basin Trail and temporarydeployment of a monitoring network by YVO. Learn more.