Scientist-in-charge of Yellowstone Volcano Observatory steps down, packs bags, leaves park

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Yellowstone National Park/Flickr

Did the scientist take a new job offer or is something going on at the park that we need to know about?

(INTELLIHUB) — Yellowstone Volcano Observatory head scientist Jake Lowenstern has stepped down from his post after 15-years after being “offered the opportunity to lead the Volcano Disaster Assistance Program (VDAP) where he will work “to assist volcano observatories in developing countries that face daunting volcanic risk.”

The scientist wrote a “goodbye letter” dated August 30 which reads as follows:

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.

Yellowstone is currently undergoing its third largest earthquake swarm ever documented and NASA has been trying to drill the supervolcano to avoid its eruption. However, it is unknown whether any of these events had a factor on Lowenstern’s decision.

H/T: Tabertronic/Twitter

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