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June 21, 2021

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USGS monitors Yellowstone volcano system from Vancouver

National park's volcano observatory housed at Cascade Park site

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Geophysicist Rebecca Kramer charges batteries for high-precision GPS equipment at USGS Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver late last month. Staff was packing up monitoring gear being shipped to be used in studies of the volcanic system at Yellowstone National Park.
Geophysicist Rebecca Kramer charges batteries for high-precision GPS equipment at USGS Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver late last month. Staff was packing up monitoring gear being shipped to be used in studies of the volcanic system at Yellowstone National Park. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

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.

Coming Sunday:

A closer look at how science and scientific knowledge is evolving at Mount St. Helens, 41 years after its big eruption.

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.

Demystifying Yellowstone

As scientist in charge, Mike Poland hears a lot of erroneous notions about Yellowstone’s volcanic system. Here are some FAMs — frequently addressed misconceptions:

Is Yellowstone overdue to erupt?

No, Poland said. He’s heard claims that Yellowstone erupts every 600,000 years on average. The last major eruption was 631,000 years ago; the two previous eruptions were 2.1 million and 1.3 million years ago, so the average period between them is about 730,000 years. But even that number is based on limited data, and so “is basically useless,” the geophysicist said. And, volcanoes don’t accumulate magma at a regular rate, so they don’t erupt on a regular schedule.

Will the next Yellowstone eruption be an Armageddon-level blast?

Not all eruptions are Armageddon, Poland said. The most common form at Yellowstone is a lava flow, and they happen only once every few tens of thousands of years. There have been more than 20 lava flows since the last big explosive eruption 631,000 years ago.

Can a seismic event on the West Coast trigger an eruption at Yellowstone?

No. A lot people think all volcanoes are connected, Poland said. They think that the next big Cascadia quake will set Yellowstone off, or vice versa. But volcanoes don’t work that way, he said.

Are we seeing more volcano activity now?

No. Volcanoes aren’t any more active now than at any other period of time, Poland said. People tend to have a bias for the significance of recent events, Poland said, and volcanic activity in Hawaii, Iceland and St. Vincent in the Caribbean have been getting a lot of attention.

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.”

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