As Rebecca Kramer geared up for a summer project to monitor Yellowstone’s volcano system, she was doing prep work in an east Vancouver parking lot.
The U.S. Geological Survey scientist was testing GPS units. Their placement over the next week or so is part of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory’s summer field work. Kramer is a geophysicist at the Cascades Volcano Observatory.
The partnership is not really much of a stretch, since both volcano observatories are housed in the same building in Cascade Park. Mike Poland, scientist in charge at Yellowstone, has a Vancouver address and local telephone number.
“Yellowstone Volcano Observatory doesn’t have a physical facility,” Poland said. “My predecessor was located in California. My location doesn’t really matter.”
Poland, a research geophysicist, said he typically is in the national park from two to four times a year, depending on volcano activity that might take him to other locations, such as Hawaii. His visit this month will include the GPS project that Kramer is part of.
Kramer’s GPS packages are temporary units that will supplement permanent monitoring stations around the park. Each of the 16 cases contains a GPS instrument. It is connected to an external antenna — a bright green square — by a cable wrapped in braided stainless steel. A solar panel powers each unit.
For each placement, “One person carries the solar panel and battery. One person carries the box,” Kramer said. “Some (sites) are right next to the road. Last year, the longest hike was a mile and a half.”
The hard work might start when they reach the installation site.
“We’ve had to dig through 6 feet of snow,” Kramer said.
Another aspect of Yellowstone’s natural environment can come into play after the units have been installed.
“We don’t get a lot of animal problems in Oregon or Washington. But in Yellowstone, they will chomp on the cable, despite the stainless steel,” Kramer said. “One box was tossed. We don’t know whether it was a bear or a bison.”
The temporary GPS monitors don’t transmit any data; all the information is stored. When the boxes are retrieved in the fall, scientists will analyze information on ground movement detected by the GPS satellite network.
The Yellowstone Volcano Observatory is a consortium that includes the state geology agencies of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming; the University of Wyoming; the University of Utah; Montana State University; and the National Park Service. With all those partners, “Part of my job is facilitating work others are doing,” Poland said.
He also does a lot of science education. Poland will have training sessions this month with park rangers so they can share accurate information about Yellowstone’s volcanic system. He does monthly videocasts with updates on volcanic and seismic activity. The last couple have featured myth-busting segments. There is a lot of misinformation out there, Poland said.
Even accurate information can be taken out of context, in what might be described as British-tabloid fashion. And that’s not just a figure of speech. In a recent phone interview, Poland said that he’d had an email exchange earlier that morning with a London tabloid reporter.
She had seen one of Poland’s video updates, and his note on 43 earthquakes the previous month must have sounded kind of tab-licious.
His response included a reality check: 43 earthquakes actually is below average.
Poland described Yellowstone as “endlessly interesting. You don’t have to make stuff up.”